Another Life: The hardy alder relishes getting its feet wet on river banks

Michael Viney: Sometimes, and surprisingly, Irish farmland can produce its own native trees, regenerating dreams of a lost forest

 Siskins feeding on seeds in alder cones. Picture: Michael Viney

Siskins feeding on seeds in alder cones. Picture: Michael Viney

 

The trunks of the alders are gloved in moss, and above them the leaf-buds are still tightly wrapped in purple, like rolled umbrellas. So while the alder is first of our native trees to open up, spring doesn’t start that early.

There was a time, some 25 years ago, when I’d be out in the morning with my cards from UCD, keen to mark up my records of bud-burst as a contribution to phenology. It gave me new experiences up close and day by day: how the alder buds would swell and then go on to burst, a miraculous expansion and unfolding, the pleats in the leaves eased out by an oil from special glands.

Much later came oak and ash, their random precedence feeding the folklore of rainfall. Ahead of both and not native enough to count, the female sycamore unfolded astonishing intricate pendants of blossom. And then, pretty well last, the alien beech in its cascade of singing green.

A decade of diligence was all that I managed, my meagre data long since swallowed up in the official compilations in the “phenological gardens” of the National Phenology Network and the many further offerings of citizen-scientists and school projects.

The bud-bursts of spring, like so much in nature, have been generally advanced by climate change, but quite by how much is a rather pointless question – milder winters, colder winters, droughts and deluges all count, and day-length as much as ever.

A wetter future will certainly suit the alder. Since it crept west to a post-glacial Ireland from forests in the Carpathian Mountains, it has relished getting its feet wet on river banks or creeping into the margins of wetlands, where its woods become “alder carr”.

Self-assured dignity

It made some great trees early on. There’s an alder shield in the National Museum a whole metre across – a diameter unlikely to be offered by any alder trunk in Ireland today. With “a quiet, self-assured dignity”, as botanist Christopher Wyse-Jackson puts it, its tough, rosy wood went on to make hat blocks, farmhouse furniture and clogs.

Alder’s hardiness and rapid growth makes it useful for shelter belts and as a partner with other native trees in the cultivation of tight-packed “micro forests”.

This is a new concept in tree-planting, founded in Japan by Dr Akira Miyawaki of the Japanese Centre for International Studies in Ecology. In years of experiment, he developed a design of densely planted native trees to create plots at least 20m x 5m, in which the saplings are no more than 60cm apart.

At this dense spacing competition for light forces faster growth. In a pioneering Irish example near Aughrim in Co Wicklow, the Wolfgang Reforest group reports twice the growth expected, many of its trees shooting up by two metres from one spring to the next.

The close planting encourages a supportive underground network, “the wood-wide web” of mycorrhizae that passes nutrients and water to the trees that need them most.

Another project leader is Pocket Forests, working with inner-city schools and gardeners. In a blog one of its partners, Ashe Conrad-Jones, praises the alder as her favourite tree. Among its virtues she lists are the teeming mycorrhizal fungi that work among its roots and the lichens and mosses on its branches. It is, as she says, a hub of biodiversity, and I would add the brilliant siskins that sometimes arrive to feed at the alder’s dark little cones.

Richer life

The flowers and berries of a close-mingled mix of Ireland’s native trees – rowan, birch, alder, hazel, spindle, hawthorn, whitebeam and more – help to give mini-forests an intensely richer life than more regular planted woodland. They hold clear promise for urban parks, school grounds, industrial estates and roadsides, as well as a wind-break for rural homes that improves on sombre conifers.

Sometimes, and surprisingly, Irish farmland can produce its own native trees, regenerating dreams of a lost forest. In a most engaging podcast Padraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust conjures hopes of a “Wild Atlantic Rainforest”, stretching from Macroom in Co Cork to the westernmost peninsulas of Cork and Kerry.

For a start he contrasts sad oakwoods in Killarney’s national park, their ground nibbled bare by invading sheep and deer, with a farm on the Beara Peninsula fenced against deer and left to grow back with astonishing trees and wildflowers.

Since his powerful book Whittled Away, Fogarty has been “reimagining Ireland” in a series of writings and podcasts for the Irish Wildlife Trust called Shaping New Mountains, of which this is the fourth long episode.

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