Alder, also known as red alder and Western alder, is one of the most common of the Pacific Coast commercial timbers. But unlike many of the other important timber trees of the Northwest, alder is a hardwood. And, it is the only broadleaf tree with cones.
At one time, alder was considered a "weed" tree, a nuisance that was bulldozed to leave room for the more highly-regarded Douglas firs, hemlock, and other conifers. However, a careful plan of marketing begun some 40 years ago has changed alder’s status.
According to David Sweitzer, secretary/manager of the Western Hardwood Assn., the aggressive marketing program here and abroad has made alder the third most extensively exported hardwood in the United States. The plan included sending samples of alder all over the world, thus giving people an opportunity to both see and use the wood.
"Western alder is a fine-grained hardwood similar to cherry, birch and maple. It has a density or hardness comparable to Appalachian soft maple," said Sweitzer.
"Over the last 25 to 30 years the price of alder has continually gone up," Sweitzer said, adding that the gradual price increase is a positive sign. "This encourages landowners and land managers to harvest alder instead of trying to eradicate it."
The price reflects the increase in demand for alder as users became convinced of its various uses. "Alder, or western alder as it is often called, has many things going for it. It machines well, works easily, and staples well. Alder takes any color or stain easily and also looks good in its natural state with its attractive honey color. Alder has no problems with sap, mineral streaks, dark colors or staining," Sweitzer said.
"Annually, approximately 600 million board feet of kiln dried and green alder is used here and in other countries," he added. The biggest importers of alder are Germany, Japan and Italy, while half of what is cut annually is used in the domestic market, Sweitzer said.
Alder grows on the Pacific Coast of Canada and the United States, favoring damp, moist sites. Most of what is cut comes from Oregon, Washington, southern British Columbia and Northern California, between the Pacific Coast and the Cascade Mountains. According to Sweitzer, alder typically grows in stands with other trees, including Douglas fir and hemlock.
David Hibbs, professor in the Department of Forestry Science at Oregon State University, said alder grows quite quickly, although it is not a long-living species. "It fairly jumps out of the ground," he said. Seeds from the tree would blow in the wind and trees would spring up on disturbed sites after logging, landslides, and fire, often the first tree to take hold and thrive.
Alder matures in 25 to 40 years and then starts to deteriorate by 60 to 80 years of age. Alder aids the trees growing near it because its root system puts nitrogen into the soil that helps conifers grow, Sweitzer added. Alder’s expansive root system is also valued for discouraging erosion.
At one time a medicinal brew was made from alder’s bark and leaves and used as a quinine substitute. Native Americans used alder to make a variety of medicines.
Common alder (Alnus glutinosa) is native to Europe and North Africa and also grows in Russia, western Asia and Japan. Common alder is used for wood carving and turnery, broom handles, hat blocks and textile rollers. It is rotary cut for plywood and is also used for packing crates. A small amount is cut for decorative veneers.
Black alder and grey alder (Alnus incana) grow in northern Europe and western Siberia. Other alders from North America include sitka alder (Alnus sinuata), which grows as far as the Arctic Circle in Alaska; mountain alder (Alnus tenuifolia) which is a short, shrub-like tree; California alder (Alnus rhombifolia) also called white alder; and Arizona alder (Alnus oblongifolia) or Mexican and New Mexican alder.
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