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Plant of the Month: Red Alder - The Community Builder

January 28, 2020
Plant of the Month: Red Alder - The Community Builder

Red Alder – The Community Builder

At GRuB we recognize red alder as teacher for building community. In the wake of a land disturbance like a fire, clear cut, or slide, alder seeds fly on the wind and settle on barren ground. The seeds germinate and form partnerships with bacteria in the soil. In exchange for a place to live and plant sugars, the bacteria fixes nitrogen (an important plant food) from the air into the soil – thus making the ground fertile. You can see red clusters of bacteria growing on the alder roots. Saplings grow quickly - establishing a shady home for plants to grow and many species of animals including insects, birds, and squirrels to find food and shelter. While alder usually lives for less than 100 years, it offers protective shade and creates conditions for long-lived conifer trees to take root and develop into stable forests. Alder twigs are important food for deer, elk, and moose. Small birds eat the seeds and use the trees for cover and nesting. Beavers eat alder bark and use the branches for constructing their dams. Alder shades streams, rivers and ponds, and helps protect fish and other wetland species.

Alder's leaves and their distinctive male catkins and immature female green cones can be used to help identify these trees.

Alder is one of the plants in the Tend, Gather, and Grow Curriculum. Students learn about the lifecycle of alder the gifts it contributes to a forest community. Through acting out forest succession, students get to experience taking on the roles of Frankia bacteria, alder seeds and fully-grown trees, long-lived conifers, and natural disturbances. They make connections to their own life and how they can build community through collaborating with others. Students also learn about how people use alder for food, medicine, and traditional technologies including wood working- smoking fish, and making an orange dye.

Identifying Alder: Alder (Alnus rubra) is a common tree growing up to 100 feet tall along waterways and in wet forests. Seedlings grow as much as three feet per year and form groves. Young trees have smooth, silvery bark and older tree bark is often spotted with white lichen, moss, and dark spots. The inner bark and wood turn brilliant orange to red when cut. Leaves are toothed on the edges and are sharply pointed at the tip and base. In early spring, red and yellow male catkins hang from leafless branches like fancy tassels and give the treetops a reddish flush - a sure sign that spring is just around the corner. Female “berries” grow on the same tree and turn from green nubs into dark brown cones that resemble small pinecones.

Medicine: Alder reestablishes harmony in our body as well as on the land. The bark is most commonly used for medicine, but the leaf buds, male catkins, and female immature green cones are also used. Alder is bitter and supports the function of the liver including breaking down waste products, stimulating digestive juices, and helping us to break down fats. Alder is also antimicrobial and is used to treat internal and topical infections. It tightens puffy, irritated tissue including an inflamed gut. Skin disorders including acne and boils may respond well to alder medicine.

The bark of the trunk, larger branches, or twigs can be harvested in the spring and fall. If you are harvesting bark from the trunk, only strip a narrow width so the tree can continue to thrive. On thicker bark, separate the medicinal red inner bark from the tough outer bark, as the inner bark is the strongest medicine. You do not need to separate branch or twig bark.

Harvest Alder Medicine

You can use alder medicine any time of year. It is a favorite medicine for fighting sore throats and easing indigestion. The bark is best harvested in spring or fall, but still contains medicine the rest of the year. Look for a branch that has recently fallen down, or cut a small branch and strip the bark. The inside of the bark will turn reddish after several minutes. Suck on the bark straight, boil a small handful per 2 cups of water for 10 minutes and drink it throughout the day, or dry the bark and save it for making medicine later.

You can also pick immature green male catkins or female cones in late spring through early winter and suck on them like a lozenge. It is fine to chew up the plant material and swallow it. For persistent sore throats, suck on several alder lozenges per day.

Traditional technologies: Alder bark makes a beautiful orange to red dye. It is harvested in spring to summer at the warmest time of day when the sun is directly on the tree. Alder wood is used in woodworking to make utensils, carvings, furniture, and other things. The wood burns well and is prized for smoking salmon. It burns clean and is non-crackling.

Red Alder roots
Alder as medicine

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