Meditations on alders

In praise of the familiar, its healing qualities, pioneering habitat
By Kristen Lindquist | May 24, 2011
Photo by: Kristen Lindquist An alder bud, on the Ducktrap River Preserve.

In this season when leaves are almost the size of squirrels’ ears and the first wildflowers brighten the forest floor, when mornings resound with birdsong once more, I find myself drawn to an unlikely spring bloomer: the alder. A plain and abundant tree bearing indistinct flowers, the alder is often overlooked. But its buds have been in front of our eyes all winter, clusters of stubby brown fingers at the ends of alder branches. Now these fingers have swelled and lengthened into drooping yellowish-brown catkins, the male flower. (The female buds have been less noticeable, tiny little nubs blooming into smaller reddish catkins.)

Most alders flower before their leaves have fully opened. The catkins of either gender are just as much a symbol of the season as those of the pussy willow, and obvious enough if you look. But cute and fuzzy trumps drab and droopy in our eyes. The part of the alder most of us recognize—although perhaps not realizing what it is—is the little, dry, round, brown “fruit” that looks like a miniature pine cone (and is often used as such in holiday décor).

Barely more than a shrub, the alder congregates in stands of crooked smooth, grey trunks. It commonly fills the low, wet places — marshes, bogs, streamsides, and roadsides. It’s a tree we’re used to seeing around here, not ornamental in any way, nothing we would deliberately plant to enhance our backyard landscaping. Yet the alder boasts a rich mythological history, as well as some botanical points of interest, making it worth a closer look.

Mythologists have identified the alder as one of the sacred trees of Celtic Britain, a symbol of regeneration associated with Bran the Blessed, an ancient god of, among other things, poetry and the underworld. In the medieval Welsh legends collected in the Mabinogian, Bran is depicted as a hero giant possessing a magic cauldron that restores the dead to life. The Celtic word for alder, “fearn,” was the letter F in Ogham, an Old Irish alphabet that we would now think of as a form of runes. So the alder’s connection to ancient magic is a strong one.

And its link to the restoration of life isn’t entirely the stuff of legends, either. Herbalists have long noted the alder’s ability to reduce inflammation caused by skin irritations or infections. Alder bark, like willow bark, contains salicin, which when ingested becomes salicylic acid, otherwise known as aspirin. The red alder, a Pacific coast species, has been found to contain betulin, a compound that reduces the swelling of lymph nodes and tumors.

In addition to its medicinal qualities, the alder pulls off true resurrection on a landscape scale: it restores life to barren ground by virtue of nitrogen-fixing bacteria living on its root nodes. The bacteria draw in nitrogen — a prime component of most fertilizers — from the air, thus providing nourishment to the tree. (The alder’s role in this symbiotic relationship is to secure carbon, necessary for the bacteria, through photosynthesis.) The nitrogen not only feeds the tree, but when the nitrogen-rich leaves fall to the ground, they decompose and further fertilize the soil. In this way, the alder plays a significant role in reforestation.

The tangled nest of an alder thicket also provides sustenance to a variety of wildlife. In winter, alder buds commonly attract redpolls, a boreal finch. More than once I’ve stood still and quiet in the middle of a patch of alders as a small flock of these pretty little birds darted all around me, pausing now and then to bob gently from a catkin. I have no doubt that deer enjoy these protein-rich buds, as well, all the more so because a dense alder thicket creates a relatively safe place to forage, the twisting trunks creating a natural fencing. This natural fencing combined with the shade of leaf cover may also help prolong the life of vernal pools within alder patches.

Because the alder prefers a moist bed, open edges of alder thickets can be ideal places to observe displaying woodcocks. On Beech Hill in Rockport I almost stepped on a woodcock nest at the edge of an alder thicket—the mother bird, who had been completely camouflaged, flushed at the very last moment. Unlike other shorebirds, which we find on our beaches and along our coast, the woodcock prefers a woodsier life and a diet of worms. Several common warbler and sparrow species, including common yellowthroat, yellow warbler, Wilson’s warbler, and Lincoln’s sparrow, favor alder habitat, as well as the aptly named alder flycatcher. (Fun fact: this otherwise nondescript little songbird can be readily identified by its repetitive, two-note song—a quick “free beer.”)

So while it may not look like much, the early-blooming alder bears power, be it through alignment with ancient stories and alphabets, its healing qualities, or its ecological role as a life-giving pioneer plant and creator of habitat. Sometimes the most familiar things around us deserve a closer look. And May is one of the best times to do so. In early morning stand near a cluster of alders on the moist edge of a quiet meadow. If you’re patient, and lucky, bright warblers, migrating northward, will flit before you among the waving brown pennants of gone-by catkins, to cast their spells of color and song — that wild and beautiful spring magic that never fails to revive the spirit.

 

 

Kristen Lindquist is a published poet who works as the development director for Coastal Mountains Land Trust in Camden.

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