Speckled Alder

The ornamental tassels of Alnus incana in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer https://agardenforall.com

The ornamental tassels of Alnus incana (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

I was not impressed a decade ago, when I first spotted a speckled alder at a local nursery.  However, over the years my opinion has changed . . . dramatically. What once appeared as a spindly, boring stem with a few spots has since blossomed into the prince it was destined to become (mine can’t be a “Cinderella”, because it’s a male), providing both a handsome element to the wide open pasture behind my home, and a source of food and habitat for surrounding wildlife.

Alnus incana is a species of alder that ranges across the cooler parts of the Northern Hemisphere, from southern Alaska to West Virginia.  Alnus incana ssp. tenufolia, or mountain alder, is native from the Continental Divide west, and to the east is Alnus incana ssp. rugosa, or speckled alder, both smaller trees that grow no more than 30 feet in zones 2-7.  A versatile tree, Alnus incana prefers consistently moist conditions, but will tolerate a wide range of soils, from sandy to gravelly, clay to loamy, and periods of flooding as well as occasional droughts.

Speckled Alder's winter display in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer https://agardenforall.com

Speckled Alder’s winter display (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

But don’t let the specked alder’s temporarily modest appearance fool you.  Like many wall flowers, Alnus incana is happy to lounge around the summer landscape, pleasantly clad in clusters of ridged, mossy green leaves with intricate serrated edges. And while it may look as though an alder isn’t doing anything but soaking up the afternoon rays, Alnus incanas are now being recognized for their “underground achievements” such as stabilizing stream banks and flood plains, and rejuvenating areas with depleted soil conditions.

However, winter is the time that this birch cousin finally throws caution to the wind (along with its leaves) and bares all, in a display of its finest assets.  Assets that you will not witness as abundantly on any other seemingly mundane, wetland native.  Alnus incana ssp. rugosa proudly flaunts its darker grayish-brown trunk accented with a random series of white horizontal marks, now complemented with multitudes of catkins (larger on the male) glowing with amber highlights in the winter sun.

Speckled alder's beautiful winter catkins in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer https://agardenforall.com

Speckled alder’s beautiful winter catkins (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

After a horrendous winter storm a few years back, we cut our established speckled alder to the ground in an attempt to revive it.  Although assured by many professionals that the tree would come back, I was terrified we killed it.  As you can see by the images, not only did it return, but did so with gusto and has never looked more spectacular.  So much so, that I recommend you consider trying it if you haven’t done so already.

Markings on Speckled Alder's trunk in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer https://agardenforall.com

Markings on Speckled Alder’s trunk (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

For those outside of New England, there are other worthy native alders to consider; for seaside areas south of New England: Alnus maritima (zone 4-8), for the Pacific Northwest: Alnus rubra (zone 4-7), for Southern states such as Florida and Texas: Alnus serrulata (zone 3-10), and southern areas of Canada and northern U.S.: Alnus viridis (zone 2-7). You may have to research each cultivar to find which alder will grow best in your area, and the conditions it will thrive under, but it will be worth your efforts.  Not only do native alders provide sustenance for butterflies in summer and food for our local fauna in winter, they bestow upon us a glorious seasonal beauty worthy of our admiration.


  1. Christina Benson says

    Your column on Speckled Alder brought back a 55 year old memory…I grew up on a dairy farm in north-west Connecticut, and once upon a time in high-school I went to a spring prom, and for the first time ever (I was a senior and must have felt entitled), stayed out late…much too late, partying.
    Back in those days we didn’t think so much that we had to let our parents know where we were…so I didn’t, finally dragged home, at 7 a.m., and managed to meet my mother on her way out the door, headed off to work, who was, to say the least, furious with me, barely speaking.
    I went to bed, exhausted, only to be aroused about three hours later by my father, who informed me that I was to spend the day with him, down in the pasture where there was a stream (‘brook’ to us). We were to spend the day “pulling alders”, with the tractor. The alders ( unclear if they were ‘speckled’ or something else), were considered nuisance brush, on our dairy farm. My job was to drag the uprooted alder bushes to a pile away from the stream. It was June, a hot and steamy day, and I knew enough to keep working even though I felt nauseous and ill, so I did, until out of the blue,I actually fainted, something a tough farm girl never did! Of course I came out of it immediately, and for my troubles did get a ride back to the house on the tractor, but otherwise no sympathy…and I learned a lesson about responsibility which I remember with chagrin to this day!

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Christina. Indeed, one man’s solution (for stabilizing a stream bank) is another man’s nuisance! Your alders could have been speckled, as some do have “roots that travel”, especially by a stream. In my yard however, the one specimen has remained a perfect gentleman for many years. In the future, I may add “lesson teacher” to the alder’s attributes~

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