Biocultural Gardening blog


Hazel Alder

25 November 2012

Natural range and habitat: From Canada to Texas throughout the eastern U.S. headed west to Kansas. Found in moist soil near streams, pond margins and riversides, hazel alder (sometimes called tag alder) can tolerate full to part sun.

Biocultural value: Alders are important stream or pond bank stabilizers and restorers. As streamside plants, they have extensive root systems that also fix nitrogen and form highly specific mycorrhizal relationships. Despite this critical role in soil and nutrient stabilization (not to mention contributing to the rhizosphere of other nearby organisms), many people remove them from the edges of waterways. Used by Native American tribes throughout its range as a blood tonic, hazel alder has been used to relieve the pain of childbirth, as an emetic or purgative and much more. Cercopids (members of the froghopper family of insects) feed on the xylem of alders. 

How to use:  This is an excellent plant for use in rain gardens of some size. Consider planting alders near downspouts around your home, though be careful not to plant too close to the house. Hazel alder can grow 12' tall with a wider colonial spread. Alternately, consider planting near ditch lines. In this way, they can function in a manner similar to that in natural ecosystems. Since this is one of the first plants to bloom in the year, it will add color and interest to your landscape, though don't expect a huge show. You will notice the drooping catkins filled with pollen and the older female catkins in the fall/winter of the year. This picture show the small young female catkins (later with pinkish blooming female flowers) with male pollen-bearing catkins just below.

Tips for growing: A few nurseries are beginning to sell hazel alder. You may need to look around a little. See my ideas about where to find those here. Since it often grows on the water's edge, hazel alder can take full sun in your garden.


Hazel alder    Alnus serrulata (Aiton) Willd.     Betulaceae

Tag alder (this name truly is more commonly used in my part of the country), is a member of the Betulaceae or birch family. Alnus is simply Latin for alder. Serrulata, as you might expect, is 'small toothed'.

I most often see tag alder during winter hikes. When mature and filled with pollen, the catkins droop from the plant like some lovely holiday decoration. The tree provides excellent cover for birds near waterways. In particular, wood cocks have been noted as using the cover for camouflage. I doubt this means that only wood cocks use the shrub as a cover. It more likely means that since these birds were highly studied as a game species, we know more about their movements. I only came to know of their value as a game species through an emeritus faculty on campus who had experience with them. My grandfather left me (via my mom) a wonderful painting of a wood cock, from a friend of his who illustrated for sportsman's magazines. Finally, the painting made sense and I've spent far too many hours in fields during the spring listening for their unusual call.

Partridge Berry

3 November 2012

This is my first entry in a blog dedicated to increasing the number of native plants in home gardens or landscapes. 

Natural range: From Canada to Texas throughout the eastern U.S. headed west to Oklahoma.

Biocultural value: Winter food source for terrestrial birds, small mammals and occasionally humans. Many different Native American tribes used the plant as medicine, particularly for pregnant women.

How to use: This interesting little ground cover is incredibly easy to spread with small rooted sections. Plant this in a natural container (tree trunk created from harvest or from natural fall). As the trunk rots away, the vine will creep out of the container, eventually returning to the ground as the trunk finalizes its decay. OR plant among other natives within your garden beds.

Tips for growing: If you don't have this plant on your property, buy your first start from a native nursery. See my ideas about where to find those here. The plant typically grows under forest cover, so mimic these low light conditions in your garden. The plant has a fairly wide tolerance of wet/dry conditions, though you may have to pay attention when you first plant.


Partridge Berry     Mitchella repens L.     Rubiaceae

This lovely low growing member of the madder family was named by Linnaeus (hence the L. authority after the scientific binomial) in honor of his friend John Mitchell. The specific epithet, repens, is a reference to the 'creeping' nature of the vine. 

From a botanical perspective, the heart shaped fruit arises because of the fusion of two ovaries. The two separate, trumpet-shaped flowers are paired up by their ovaries, resulting in a single, bright red berry. The species may trend toward dioecy (male flowers on one plant, females on another), but controls outcrossing with its distylous arrangement. This is a strategy to increase outcrossing, achieved by having two morphs of the flowers (usually one morph on a single plant). The morphs are either "pin" with short stamens and long pistils OR "thrum" with long stamens and short pistils. The pollen from a flower of one morph cannot fertilize another flower of the same morph (heteromorphic self incompatability).  The plant attracts bees by nectar rewards supplied by different flowers at different stages of growth. Scattering the stages of nectar availability this way may increase the likelihood that flowers are pollinated, since bees must travel further for rewards. The flowers are mostly pollinated by native bumblebees  (Bombus vagans, B. impatiens).

Hicks, D.J. Wyatt, R., Meagher, T.R. 1985. Reproductive Biology of Distylous Partridgeberry, Mitchella repens. American Journal of Botany. 72(10):1503-1514.

© Karen C. Hall, 2010