Spring Love Affair: Alder

Speckled Alder along Bayfront Trail

Speckled Alders are a tree found along the shores of waterways. In Hamilton, they’re easy to spot along the Bayfront Trail and at the waters edge around Cootes Paradise. Alders are always displaying a stage–each more bizarre than the last– of their seemingly ever-changing sex organs. In other words, the male and female bits of Alders can always be found on the tree. For this reason, the Alder is a great friend to keep an eye on all year long.

Each of the Spring Love Affair Series intends to offer tools for cultivating a deeper connection with nature within our everyday city lives. This time, we want to explore the benefits of being deliberate in oberving a tree species over the four seasons. Beginning at the end of last Spring, we began to pay closer attention to the Speckled Alder by checking in with it frequently while wondering about what we were observing.

Spring Alder's hanging male flowers

And these exercises soon reveal how imperfect guide books and arbitrary taxonomic classifications can be in trying to pin down the many identities and changing personalities of a tree. Like growing a friendship, spending time with a particular tree species all year is gratifying. Patience and persistence is rewarded with continued surprises and new wonders.

We have been nothing short of amazed by the amount of change the Speckled Alder undergoes througout the seasons. Although we feel like we could write many pages about how special an Alder is, we will stick to offering some tantilizing hints here.

In summer- New female flowers grow among thick green leaves. By midsummer, they’ve become light green fruits with a brown fringe. The bottom of the fruit looks like a bellybutton, and delicate green twists fall alongside.

Fall- As leaves turn brown and drop, all buds thicken. The female parts prepare to brave the winter in hard woody shells holding tight to precious seeds, and the green twists become woody too.

Winter – Three stages decorate an empty canopy: this year’s female cones, last year’s empty female shells, and next year’s male flowers. Through the winter winds, almost all cones loose the mysterious delicate twist. Open a cone to find tiny, flat seeds sleeping inside.

Male Catkins and female flowers in winter: holding tight to seed and pollen 'till spring

And now we return to Spring-In early April, the modest male flowers begin to swell and open and drop into long, spiraling, yellow and purple flowers. Female cones open and release the seeds at last. The tiniest new buds are growing, but their identities of male or female become our latest wonder.

New April growth. Any guesses as to what this will be?

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