Alder (Alnus glutinosa) or Fearnóg in Irish is displaying its developing reddish, male catkins now as well as its developing female flowers which are green and oval shaped (1) The male catkins will turn yellowish when they are ready to release their pollen. The catkins appear before the leaves to get the full benefit of the wind which pollinates the female flowers. These will change into brownish-black, cone-like fruits in the autumn which bear tiny nutlets that can float in water (2a;2b;2c). The empty fruits stay on the tree over winter. This tree likes to grow in damp places.
The mauve coloured buds are extremely attractive with their blunt, matchstick shaped tips. They are positioned alternately along the twigs growing on short stalks (3).
To propagate, collect the seeds or nutlets in the autumn by letting the cones dry out. About one month before sowing in the spring place the seeds in a 50:50 mixture of horticultural sand and peat free compost. Sow these stratified seeds in trays of moistened seed compost outside. Cover lightly with horticultural sand, or vermiculite. Always keep the compost moist. Prick out the seedlings into pots of compost when they are large enough to handle. After two years’ growth plant the saplings. It will tolerate poor soils and is relatively short lived.
Traditionally, alder was used to make shields and was considered as the tree of war and death because its wood changes to a reddish colour shortly after it is cut. It was also used to manufacture clogs, charcoal and sluice gates for canals. It was ideal for the latter purpose because it is resistant to decay underwater.
Ferns in Wexford, Ferney in Fermanagh and Ballyfarnon in Roscommon are named after this tree.