Facts About the Alder Tree

Its showy purple sheen in spring makes this small tree an attractive part of the landscape. The many types of alder are a fascinating species of tree, from the way they produce their seeds to the multiple ways its wood can be used.

Crowns of giant alders in the autumn sun
credit: alder7/iStock/GettyImages
Facts About the Alder Tree

Facts About the Alder Tree

Native to the United Kingdom, the alder tree's official Latin name is alnus glutinosa. It can grow to a towering 40 to 80 feet in height when it is fully grown depending on the type of alder. It is part of the birch family, which you can see in its attractive, light-gray bark that is speckled with white.

They don't require nitrogen fertilizer because they extract and use nitrogen from the air. This makes them perfect for wild areas that don't require human intervention to maintain the tree's health.

Types of Alder Trees

There are a wide variety of alder trees from which to choose:

  • Sitka Alder: It has thin leaves and grows to about 25 feet in height at its full maturity. They are sometimes used as shrubs for privacy or wind protection.

  • Red Alder: This is the largest species that can grow to nearly 80 feet at its peak. They can also be found in the Pacific Northwest.

  • Black Alder: Mostly found in Europe, this type of alder tree is known for its height.

  • White Alder: While most alders prefer to be close to a water source such as streams, rivers and marshy wetlands, this type of alder can withstand drier climates.

  • Green Alder: Small and slow growing with a crown of bright, bushy green leaves, this alder can adapt to soil and weather conditions and is often used as a shrub for landscaping.

Alder Leaf Shape

The spiky-toothed leaves are round and create attractive waves along the alder tree's crown in the slightest of breezes. The edges of the alder leaf are serrated with a distinct vein that runs down the center of the leaf and has a series of softer side veins.

The leaves don't change color when the weather turns. The egg-shaped leaves drop to the ground – perfectly green – in winter to reveal the showy seeds that make this tree so attractive during the colder months.

The red alder has a leaf that has a crisp cur on its outer edges. The white alder has leaves that are flatter along the edges.

Alder Seeds Facts

The way that the alder tree produces its seeds is slightly fascinating to arborists. It is the only native British deciduous tree that creates cones. The seeds are grown in rather small cones that pop out from the thin branches of a mature alder tree.

The pale green male catkins are striking against the light grey bark of the tree trunk and branches. A catkin is a flowering, downy spike of male seeds that droop off the branches and are carried on the wind to pollinate. The female seeds are little ball-shaped purple catkins that are located just behind the showy male catkins that fade from purple to brown before they turn into the identifiable cones.

The cones stand out in the winter months when the tree is bare of its lovely leaves. The cones can be seen from January until March. They are about an inch long and almost look like nuts.

Alder Tree Uses

This hardy tree is often used when an area is under reforestation. It stabilizes soil in rainy, wet areas. The wide, leafy canopy makes the alder tree a perfect shade tree for home gardeners.

The cones are bitter tasting but have a high protein content. The bark can be boiled into a tea to be used as an anti-inflammatory. The salicin in the bark has been used to treat skin irritations such as those from poison oak or insect bites.

The hardwood of the alder has been used for a wide variety of purposes, from the pilings of the foundation of the floating city of Venice to furniture, cabinets and trim. The Fender Musical Instruments Corporation has built guitar bodies out of alder wood since the 1950s.


Kimberley McGee

Kimberley McGee

Kimberley McGee is an award-winning journalist with 20+ years of experience writing for a variety of clients, including The New York Times, Las Vegas Review-Journal Home section and other national publications. As a professional writer she has researched, interviewed sources and written about home improvement, interior design and related business trends. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her full bio and clips can be viewed at www.vegaswriter.com.