I am really excited about this. I’ve just signed up to Loose and Leafy’s Tree Following project. The idea is to pick an individual tree, and watch or ‘follow’ it closely through the year. When do the leaves open, and fall? What animals or insects visit it? What plants or fungi grow around it? What is the bark like, and the buds? The idea is to get to know a particular tree (and species) really well, by observing it over a whole year, bringing into focus the small changes and details that might otherwise be missed.
I particularly like this project as it fits with the Permaculture principle of observing nature (or a garden, or group of plants, or a system) closely. With careful observation, you can see what works, what doesn’t, and begin to spot how you might ‘tweak’ things to make them work even better.
So, for my first year of Tree Following, I’ve chosen (drum roll…) the Common Alder, or Alnus Glutinosa. Here it is – a little Alder sapling we planted in 2012.
So why Alder? Well, given my blog name, it seemed like an obvious choice. Plus, Alders are cool. Like other Alders, Common Alder lives fast and dies young (for a tree, anyway.) That’s because it is a quick-growing ‘pioneer’ species, designed to make the most of the light in open ground, charging ahead before the slow-growers like the oaks catch up. It can grow nearly 1m or so in a year, if it’s really happy. To help them on their way, Alders have developed the neat trick of ‘fixing’ nitrogen from the air. It does this through a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria that fixes little nitrogen nodules to the tree’s roots. So Alders can, basically, fertilise themselves – improving the ground for other plants nearby while they are at it. Common Alder is also a tough cookie. It doesn’t mind growing in wet ground, and can cope with windy sites – great for us on our exposed, windy patch.
Alder has a final trick up its sleeve – like some other fast-growers such as ash, willow and sweet chestnut, Alder can be coppiced for firewood, simply throwing up new shoots when you cut it down. In 2012 we planted the beginnings of a tiny copse that we can (one day) coppice for fuel wood. We put in mainly fast-growing pioneer species including birch and alder that will help to fill up our wood-shed in about 10-15 years time.
Alder has purply-grey buds in winter, and speckled, rather shiny bark. A bit of web surfing has just informed me that it’s monoecious, which apparently means that each tree carries both male catkins and little, red female flowers. Fertilised flowers develop into small green fruits that look like tiny cones; by Autumn, they turn brown and release their seeds. Here’s some photos of ‘my’ Alder from this afternoon…
So there you have it – my first year of Tree Following. If you’re tempted to join in, head over to Loose and Leafy’s blog.