Red Alders: Forest Succession and the Weed Tree that Makes it Possible

Adrienne Domingus
6 min readNov 15, 2022

We had an arborist out to our house recently, because a hemlock tree nearly 80 feet tall and not a dozen feet from our house was clearly in the process of dying. Dead and dying trees are, of course, a critical part of forest ecosystems, both as habitat and providers of nutrients, but those dozen feet from our house are not a natural forest, and so that tree was a hazard that had to go.

It was located off the corner of our house where the most open part of the yard is. And so, there too was our garden — a couple raised beds that had produced a few papery heads of lettuce and some stubby carrots last year, along with radishes and rutabagas that never bulbed out, and peas that were nibbled by rabbits before we had a chance to see whether they would climb — we have some work to do on our soil and our fencing.

Also in that corner are the three young fruit trees we got from a local nursery and planted, and a fig tree that a neighbor dug up and gifted to us when they forgot to prune theirs for too many years — where one of the branches grew long and dropped down to touch the ground, it had set new roots. This reminds me of holly, but I decided to forgive the fig its similarities. Western redcedar is known to do this too; it’s no one’s fault that holly is the first tree I noticed this predilection in. I worried about the fruit trees though, and that the lettuce would remain papery even if we did improve our soil because, next to that dead or dying hemlock was also a red alder large enough to put most of the area in shade for much of the day.

And since the arborist was there anyway, we asked him about removing the alder too. He didn’t blink twice, calling it a weed tree and declaring that it had to go. This may not seem surprising, coming from someone whose living depends on homeowners wanting to remove trees, but I wonder: is it possible to get into a profession like being an arborist without also loving trees, or at least learning to respect them? He did seem to: there was a large madrone tree nearby that he praised, and some mushrooms on the ground (fall in the Northwest) that launched us into a discussion about fungal networks and their symbiotic relationship with trees. He clearly noticed and found joy in the natural world.

And yet: alders as weed trees. They are prolific, I suppose, and have a tendency to die from the top, which makes them look nearly menacing at times, leafless clawing branches…