Respect Your Alders

There are lots of trees in the forest, but I have been having a growing love for red alder, alnus rubra. In the Pacific Northwest it is considered a weed tree. It is a fast growing pioneer, and one of the few non-legume nitrogen fixers.

Without a lot of help these guys will transform a soggy soil into something fertile enough for “real” timber growth. They lay down a thick layer of humus with fallen leaves and branches and can rid the soil of bad fungus by just growing and falling in place. Once the tree falls all those nitrogen nodules on the roots slow release fertilizer at the root zone for the next stage of the forest to take advantage of. Fallen trees soak up tons of water and keep the forest moist in the dry season.

We have a lot of uses for these on the farm and at the house.

Clean burning and fast curing I can safely drop a tree in spring and with a little care have bone dry firewood by the beginning of the season. They aren’t as dense as fir but don’t gunk up the chimney as fast with creosote. They look great in the wood pile too. Best of all they are super easy to split. I don’t even need to stand them on end save for the really big rounds. I can drop a tree, buck and split it with an axe in less than a day.

Freshly split and stacked alder

Alder chippings are fantastic for orcharding. We save the thinnest branches for this and prefer to harvest them when they are just starting to leaf out. These ramial chips have a lot of nutrition that promotes soil health and good fungi. We use it to keep the pasture grass at bay around our plantings and it holds moisture incredibly well. We have filled our first swale with wind fall logs and branches to create a giant sponge effect near our precious fruit trees too. While alder doesn’t coppice well I have noticed that when a live tree falls the upward branches begin to sprout into mini trees and the parts that are in contact with the soil begin to change into roots. I think I can use this to our advantage to promote more of the little twigs and limbs we want without sacrificing entire trees.

You can see the mass of mycelium in the old chips

We plan on using the sponge effect in the bases of our raised beds too.


I have always been drawn to the deep red inner bark that stains the logs orange, and then it occurred to me after it stained a shirt I was wearing while hauling out logs from a thinning project that it would make a great dye. Native Americans knew this and used it to dye their fishing nets. This year I pulled as much bark off as I could to speed the drying process and to leave some nutrients in place where the tree was harvested. I saved some to boil and make dye.

Dye from 3 gallons of inner bark, ready to use

I have read that alders can be tapped like a maple and that the water is flavorful and once reduced makes a tasty syrup. This is on my list of experiments for next spring.

Though not suitable for outdoor use or contact with water this soft hardwood is great for cabinets, interior doors and trim. It is easy to work with and it’s habit of self pruning in close stands makes for a virtually knot free wood. When it does burl it is beautiful and the few boards to have ripped with a chainsaw look very nice. We intend to saw some of the bigger logs for finish work in our future home.

This time of year everything is covered with a fine layer of bright green pollen. To us it is two things. Airborne nitrogen and bee fodder. A friend of mine gave me some alder honey and it is scrumptious. Luckily I’m not allergic to alder pollen, when the grass is in bloom it is another, sneezier story. You can bet that when we keep bees there will be a few hives in our alder stands.

This falls under the “I don’t know, but I’ve been told” category. Antiseptic properties and tumor reduction are touted, but I’ll let you do your own research on that one.

Large trees are prone to splitting when felling. This is pretty dangerous but avoidable two ways. For trees I feel are at risk I use a bore cut and open notch to prevent a barber chair. Trunks can also be wrapped with logging chain.




Guidance for felling can be found on the OSHA site.

In a windstorm you want to be far away from alders. Large upper branches can rocket down like a spear. We’ve come across them believing they were small trees they had plunged so deeply in the ground. Tops snap off and whole trees can topple over.

When the crown breaks it is just a matter of time before the tree succumbs to heart rot. The wood gets punky fast, so I have been trying to salvage leaners and snapped top trees before they are too hazardous to take down.

All things considered, these “weeds” are pretty awesome.






About M. Agriculteur

Designer, motorcycle junkie, traveler, wanna-be iron butter (more butt than iron), builder, foodie, farmer wanna-be.
This entry was posted in Forest Management, Mulch, Permaculture, Sustainability, Tree Care and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Respect Your Alders

  1. Alders are considered weed trees here too (makes sense, we’re in the same region, basically). We have quite a few around here, they seem to spring up pretty quickly. I’m surprised they don’t coppice, but that’s nature for you, all exceptions to the rules. In New Zealand, I learned that the Douglas Fir, which they initially planted a few decades ago for forestry has adapted so well to local conditions that it has completely taken over their native forests, and now they consider it a weed tree, to the extent that they have sprayed vast tracts to kill it off.

  2. MikeH says:

    Red alder is good but Alnus glutinosa may be better since it apparently is coppiceable –

    Our red alders were coppiced chewed down to the ground by meadow voles this past winter and most are resprouting so red alder may also have some

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