Alnus rubra

Common name: red alder

Scientific name: Alnus rubra

Native American names: Klallam (s’ko’niltc); Quinault (malp); Swinomish (suk’uba’ts) [1]

Plant family: Betulaceae

Description: Deciduous tree with thin, grey, smooth bark with white patches of lichen. Inner bark rusty red when cut. Leaves are alternate, broadly elliptic and sharp pointed at base. Margins are wavy, slightly rolled under with coarse blunt teeth. Leaves remain green until they drop in late fall. The Flowers  are male and female catkins appearing before the leaves. Female (2 cm), male (5-12 cm).  The fruit  is a brown cone (2 cm) in clusters containing oval, winged, nutlets.[2]

Habitat and Range: Moist woods, streambanks, floodplains, recently cleared land, often in pure stands. Low-elevations.[2] USA (AK, CA, ID, MT, OR, WA), CAN (BC)[3]

Historical and Contemporary Uses

Medicine Many tribes used/use a decoction of the inner bark as a purgative when ingested internally and as a remedy for sores, wounds, and other skin conditions externally.[4] Others used/use the decoction for respiratory illness such as tuberculosis.[2]

Food The Straits Salish also ate/eat the inner bark in the spring.[2]

Dye The inner bark is used as a red-orange-brown dye to color baskets, canoes, and fibers. Many such as the Coast Salish and Snohomish dyed their fishnets with alder to make them invisible to the fish.[4] The dye will hold fast when treated with urine.

Other The wood made an ideal fuel for smoking fish.[2] Alder is used as a bioindicator species in areas prone to ozone pollution. In the presence of high ozone levels, alder leaves will show purple discoloration.[5]


[1] Gunther, Erma. 1973. Ethnobotany of Western Washington: The Knowledge and Use of Indigenous Plants   by Native Americans. University of Washington Press, Seattle.

[2] Pojar, Jim and Andy MacKinnon eds. 1994. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Vancouver, BC: Lone Pine.

[3] NRCS: USDA: PLANTS Profile Taxus brevifolia Accessed October 2011.

[4] Moerman, Daniel. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, pages 61-63.

[5] Allen, Jeannie. 2003. “Watching Our Ozone Weather”. NASA Earth Observatory..  http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Library/OzoneWx/. Retrieved 2008-10-11.

Gardner, Alexander. (1896). Scandinavian folk-lore: illustrations of the traditional beliefs of the Northern People. Social Sciences.