Red Alder

Red Alder Story

Red Alder is also known as Western Alder and Oregon Alder.  The tree grows exclusively West of the Cascades between Alaska and California, except for a few isolated stands in Idaho. Before settlers came to our Northwest region, alder was restricted to growing alongside streams and wet areas. However, with our expanding population and the logging industry's clear-cutting practices, alder is now quite abundant throughout the region.

Red Alder is a deciduous tree growing fast to 10', moderate to 20' then slow to 50'.  Alder trees fix nitrogen into the soil. A stand of red alder can provide up to 705 pounds (320 kg) of nitrogen every year! This helps the tree to grow over places like avalanche tracks, flood plains and other disturbed areas, such as where logging has occurred. Alder helps provide the nitrogen for younger conifer seedlings growing up under the protection of their canopy. The alders start to decline after about 50 years, giving way to the next generation of forest trees.

Epiphytic lichen (lichen that grows on trees) covers most alder tree bark, giving them an appearance similar to a birch tree. Covering the bark, the lichen makes mosaic patterns of white and gray with tinges of light pink. Where the air is free of pollutants, the lichen freely covers the bark. One lichen that frequently grows on alder is called Pencil script (Graphis scripta), a very old species dating back at least 25 million years. It is white with black fruiting bodies that look like small hieroglyphs drawn in pencil. Alder bark is one of its favorite hangouts.

The name Red Alder comes from the fact that the inner bark turns orange-red when exposed to air.  These ‘bleeding’ cause the more mature wood to be beautifully tinted and veined. Before synthetic dyes started to come into general use, the Alder gave us some of the very finest dyes for wool and linen. Also known as “Scottish mahogany”, cabinet makers were especially fond of the roots and knots of Alder wood. Once used to make spinning wheels, bowls, spoons, wooden heels, herring-barrel staves, also a favorite timber for underground foundations in damp or wet conditions, the first boats were made of Alder wood. The timber can resist decay in a wet environment almost indefinitely. Venice floats partly on the strength of Alder trees.

Red Alder has a history of medicinal uses.  It’s essence helps us make a shift from serious and drab states. It is useful in the winter months to help us through the blues and withdrawing from contact with others. Lightness of being, humor and playfulness are qualities brought out.  Red Alder supports opening to the healing power of laughter, and letting go of our serious outlook on life. Native Americans also used this tree for everything from smoking salmon to dyeing.