Tree following!

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.

Introducing The Alder, Feb 2014

Introducing The Alder, Feb 2014

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…

Common Alder - Winter buds

Common Alder – Winter buds

Alder bark

Alder bark

Alder catkins and flowers

Mono-wot-cious? Alder catkins and flowers

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.

  • For more about the Common Alder, try the RHS page here, or the Scottish conservation organisation Trees for Life has lots of wonderful info. 

29 responses to “Tree following!

  1. Fixes nitrogen from the air? Grows fast, doesn’t mind wet soil? I never knew that and I like it for firewood. Grow it for 10 to 15 years? Hummm, I wish I HAD DONE THAT 10 to 15 years ago. 🙂
    Tell me, do the bees pollinate the catkins like they do pussy willow trees? At what time of year?

    • Well, I don’t know if it will definitely be ready to coppice in 10-15 years, but we’ll give it a go! We’ve also got some ‘short rotation’ biomass willow coppice that can be cut for thin logs/large kindling in 4-5 years. I think hazel needs 7 years or so to make smallish logs…We’re also going to give some poplar a try – not the best firewood, I’ve heard, but grows like a weed! (We’ll also plant a few slow-growers – our kids/future grandkids/whoever is living here in 60 years can enjoy those!)

      As to the bees pollinating the alder – I have no idea, I’m afraid. I will keep a look out for signs of bees – and I’ll ask my beekeeping friends. Or Emma (Miss Apis Mellifera) may well know!

      • Ask them about poplars too. Bees seem to like them for the propolis. I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to get video of bees going to poplar trees for over a year.
        I had a feeling you might know EST and Emily Heath. I’ve been reading their beekeeping blogs with interest. They write so well. I feel bad about the weather in the UK. My wife says she read how the weather pattern off the Atlantic is ‘stuck’ over Great Britain. Keeps dumping rainfall without moving over. The bees are not going to like being cooped up for so long.

        • Yes, I love both their blogs…And Emma has very kindly put a link to the RHS ‘Trees for Bees’ leaflet. It says that, in the UK, Common Alder is ‘a good very early source of pollen’. Doesn’t mention poplar, tho. You’re right, we’ve had awful, stormy wet weather, some bits of the UK have been flooded for weeks. Awful. The ‘jet stream’ over the Atlantic seems to be changing pattern and getting ‘stuck’, so whatever weather we’re having, we have it for weeks. Last winter it was snow…Hope the weather is OK where you are, the polar freeze has been on the news here…

  2. This is such a good idea, and a wonderful way of finding out more about a type of tree. I do like Alder especially the catkins. I shall follow your little sapling with interest.xxx

    • I was really pleased to have found this on Loose and Leafy’s blog…I’m really excited about taking part (does this make me a giant plant nerd?? I think it might!)

  3. I love alder trees in winter
    Have you come across Alnus glutinosa ‘Imperialis’? It has beautiful leaves which are like filigree, similar to those of a Japanese maple.
    Tree following is a great idea, it makes you really study them.

    • Hello, and thanks for visiting. I just had a look at ‘Imperialis’ – wow, that’s a pretty tree. It’s very tempting…We did plant a Golden Alder (Alnus Incana Aurea), but I think it’s a bit dainty for our tough conditions, and is really struggling. I’m hoping bog-standard common alder will fare better!

  4. You’ve made the alder sound like the gold standard of tree-ness. Brought a common tree to the top of the ‘must have’ list. It’s a good time to start tree following. Everything is on edge – just about to ‘happen’ or, as your little alder is, newly off the blocks.

    • Ha! Perhaps I should make it some sort of badge. Before we moved here, I’m not sure I would have recognised an alder…I think they’re often seen as a ‘municipal planting’ tree, that appears on roundabouts and around car parks. My favourite tree book has a chapter that basically says – ‘Alders – who cares.’ But then we moved here to a very windy, exposed spot, and needed to plant tough, fast-growing windbreaks. Everyone I asked for advice said ‘plant alder’, and I started to get more interested in them! Thanks for the Tree Following idea, it’s lovely, and I’m looking forward to learning more about my Alder – and other trees – this year.

    • Ours are too but I’m new to alders – only planted them last winter – so I’m not sure what’s normal for them! Many thanks for visiting. Your bird photos on your blog are really wonderful, by the way – however do you do it? (I’m lucky to get a blurry shot of a disappearing tail…!)

      • I have the bird feeder a few yards away (5 or 6 at a rough guess) from the kitchen window and shoot through the window so as not to disturb the birds. My camera, a Nikon D7000, seems quite happy to take photos that are good enough for a computer screen at a very high ISO which helps a lot.

        I have only come lately to looking at things properly but I am pretty sure that the alders aren’t usually as heavily laden as this.

  5. Pingback: I’m Following a Tree… | Adventures in Natural Beekeeping·

    • Thank you and thanks for visiting – are you following a tree too? I haven’t had a mo to go through the list of Tree Followers properly, but I’m looking forward to it, there some interesting blogs – and trees!

  6. thank you for all the info about Alders, I can verify that they do indeed stand up to very strong winds and gales force storms straight of the Atlantic, I planted five 12 years ago and they have grown one of the best of the trees I planted, I also planted a Grey Alder, Alnus Incana, which is the tree I am following,
    I do see bees where my common alders are but there are several other plants they could be there for, so can’t say for sure if they are using the alders, I’ll keep a closer look this year as I am now curious,
    Frances

    • Hello, and thank you for visiting, great to meet another fan of Alders. Thanks so much for the info on your trees – it’s really encouraging to know they’ve grown well and stood up to gales. (You can read and be told these things, but it’s very reassuring to hear of first-hand experience!) We do have a couple of Grey Alders which I like very much, I will enjoy hearing about yours through your blog. Happy Tree Following!

  7. Pingback: Tree following – April | alder & ash·

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