Friday, 6 December 2013

The overlooked alder

At this time of the year the riverside alders begin to attract growing numbers of siskins and lesser redpolls. The birds are attracted to the trees because of the seeds contained within the alder’s small and rather delicate cones. Small parties of finches can be heard twittering in the tree-tops, the birds balancing with an acrobat’s dexterity as they attempt to extract the seeds.

The waterlogged soils that border one of my favourite stretches of the river are dominated by alder; this is, after all, a tree that can tolerate conditions too wet for potential rivals. Alder is often the first tree to colonise areas of fen or bog. Being a successful colonist of such habitats frames the alder as a conservation problem, invading land that managers may wish to retain in an ‘early-successional’ state rather than see develop into woodland.

I have always liked the alder. Its nature seems to reflect the damp and riverine conditions in which it finds itself living; the leaves paddle-shaped and the bark roughly hewn with vertical channels that give the appearance of having been cut by water. In contrast to my own feelings for this native tree there seems to be a wider lack of interest in the alder. It receives the barest of references in The Trees that made Britain and even Flora Britannica (my bible for plant lore) affords it just three short paragraphs. You might, therefore, consider the alder a tree of little value but it has a longer-term history of wider value. Alder timber does not rot under water, prompting its use in canal and riverside pilings, and it has been grown for charcoal in support of the gunpowder industry. Today it continues to be used for wooden tool handles and, occasionally, as a lure for woodworm (which prefer it over other woods).

My love of alder is, if I am honest, a recent thing – a tree discovered when I moved to the valley of the Little Ouse more than a decade ago – but I am glad to have made its acquaintance. While it may not have registered so strongly with a wider human audience, at least I share an appreciation of the alder with the humble woodworm and the siskins and redpolls .

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