Monday, February 20, 2012

Foraging 33: Alnus, the Very Common Alder

Common looking people are the best in the world: that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them. – Abraham Lincoln

Alder catkins ready to bloom in February in Nova Scotia. A strange winter.
I thought I would post this “foraging” in the dead of winter because it’s easier to identify alder when it has no leaves. It’s because of the “flowers.” You can see the catkins easily right now, just waiting for warm weather to open up.

We have two species of alder in Nova Scotia, Downy Alder (Alnus viridis) and Speckled Alder (Alnus incana). Ditches are full of alder, and not only on the East Coast of Canada. Other species of this plant can be found in all the North Temperate Zones as well as in the Andes and Argentina. There are also European species. That’s quite a range.

Alder growing between the river and road. All the bushes you
see are almost ALL alder.
What is alder?
Alnus are usually a shrub or small tree of the Betulaceae (Birch) family. Our species here are hardy to USDA Zone 3. With just a few exceptions Alders are deciduous, meaning their leaves fall off in Autumn. Their leaves are coarse, fairly oval and with serrated (toothed) edges. 

The flowers are monoecious. This means flowers are either male or female, but both can be found on the same plant. The catkins (flowers) attract bees and butterflies. Alders bloom anywhere from Mar to June, and the seeds ripen in the Fall. 

Alder differ from birch (in the same botanical family) in that the female catkins are woody. Interestingly, they ripen and then open like little (about 1/2” long) pine cones to release their seeds – much like real pine cones.

Right: catkins in bloom. Behind: last year's female
flowers resembling small pine cones. Photo: Wiki CC
Alder is an important nitrogen fixer in the soil in which it grows, allowing other plants to benefit from this work. Often alder grows where wood has been harvested, or on the margins of open areas where woodland is encroaching. They are an important colonizer in returning disturbed land to forest.

Alder isn’t too fussy about the quality of soil it will grow in either. It is happy in nutritionally poor as well as acidic or alkali soils. It can grow in semi-shade (light woodland) or no shade. It tolerates moist or wet soil easily and also coastal exposure.

Edibility and medicinal uses
The catkins of some alder species have a slight degree of edibility (as a survival food)and may be rich in protein although they are bitter. There have been no significant studies done because of the taste. But they won't kill you.

Pollen can also be harvested when the flowers are in bloom and added to flour to enrich baked goods. One gallon of blooming catkins will yield about 6 tablespoons of pollen. Note, some people are allergic to pollen so don’t spring it on anyone by including it in your baked goods without letting them know first. 

Certain alder species are also sometimes used to smoke food because of the aroma given off as the wood burns.

Alder in leaf. Photo: anneke1998, Flickr ccl
The fresh bark causes vomiting if ingested, so dried bark is the way to go if you have occasion to need it. A decoction (boiled-down concentration) of dried bark is used to alleviate swellings and inflammations, especially of the mouth and throat. 

The powdered bark and the leaves have also been used as an internal astringent and tonic. The bark alone has also been used internally and externally against haemorrhage. The dried bark of young twigs is used, or the inner bark of slightly older branches – not the woody stalks. 

Boiling the inner bark in vinegar produces a wash to treat lice and skin problems such as scabies. The infusion can also be used as a mouthwash, but I can’t see vinegar being very palatable. 

A decoction of the leaves has been used in folk remedies for treating certain cancers. Recent clinical studies have verified that red alder contains betulin and lupeol, compounds shown to be effective against a variety of tumors.

I found this additional information about red alder on (Plants for a Future). It’s a searchable database that lists over 7,000 edible and/or medicinal plants, with fairly detailed information. Quite a resource.
  • Catkins (raw or cooked): rich in protein but have a bitter flavour and are not very palatable
  • Inner bark (cooked): must be dried since it is emetic (makes you vomit - docaitta) when fresh;  inner bark has been dried, ground into a powder and used as a thickening agent in soups or mixed with flour when making bread
  • Sap (raw): harvest in late winter on a warm, sunny day that follows a cold frosty night. A sweet flavour, it was often used to sweeten other foods. 

Fiesta Red Stratocaster. Photo: Wiki CC
No I haven’t forgotten woodworking…
Mature alder has an interesting grain and is sometimes used in cabinetmaking. 

The Fender Stratocaster and Fender Telecaster have been built with alder bodies since the 1950s. The wood is prized for its bright tone, and has been adopted by many other electric guitar manufacturers as well.

One final note: my grandfather used to make whistles out of alder in Spring. Once the sap started running he would cut a 3” piece about as big around as your little finger. Then he would start tapping the bark with his closed pocket knife. The bark would loosen and pull off. A few judicious nicks out of the wood and one through the bark was all you needed. Reassembled, we could whistle away the afternoon.

So it’s quite a useful plant. It’s good to think about that the next time you drive along any Nova Scotia highway. You’re 100% guaranteed to see some.


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