A very lovely elderly lady I used to garden for, had a stand of five alder trees at the bottom of her garden, next to a brook. She called them her guardians, and there is indeed something solid and reassuring about this tree.
Alder binds up river-banks. Like willow, it flourishes naturally by the edge of rivers, with its roots in the water. This preference of the the wild tree can exploited by planting alder along river banks to prevent the erosion.
Alder has an ancient reproductive system , harking back to a time before angiosperms. Like hazel and birch, it has catkins, but alder is the only broad-leaved deciduous tree to have cones as well. You can see them on the photo above, persisting from last year, along with the unopened catkins and the young cones. In the late-winter sunlight, alder trees have a purplish haze to them, because they are covered with purple catkins.
The catkins are the male part of the alder’s reproductive system. They are produced in the winter, and as mentioned before are a purplish brown. In the early spring they become long and dangly and are full of yellow pollen which is dispersed by the wind. The female parts are the little nubbly structures which you can see in this photo. They will be fertilised by the wind-blown pollen from the catkins and will swell into cones.
You can understand what D.H. Lawrence was banging on about in ‘Women in love’: trees are surprisingly sexual.
And here is a bit of local lore: alders can form alder carr, which is a dense thicket or stand of alder, usually small in height, growing on wet swampy soils. And Aldercar is an old area of what is now a joint parish with Langley Mill, just north of Derby.
Our history is in our place names.