If I go east on the rail trail I’ll eventually pass through a wetland, through which a tributary of the Tay River meanders. On either side of the rail trail, where the banks are high enough to allow growth of trees who like to dip their toes without getting their whole feet wet, are Speckled Alders (and cedars, but it’s the alders that caught my interest last time I was out that way).
Alders are interesting trees in that they produce both male and female flowers on the same tree, and quite often the same branch. The female flowers develop into cone-like structures that house the seeds. In the winter the cones open and dry out, not unlike conifer cones. The alder shrubs are easily identifiable even from a distance by the clusters of dark cones intermixed with long, thin catkins (the male flower bits), garnishing the bare branches like ornaments.
Apparently the catkins are edible and high in protein, but taste bitter (so not for snacling, but useful for next time you find yourself lost in the woods and starving). Another useful bit of survival knowledge: tea brewed from alder bark is useful for treating skin irritations, not to mention lymphatic disorders and tuberculosis (important to know for woodland emergencies). Also useful should you need to barter something is the knowledge that Fender Stratocasters and other electric guitars are made from alder wood. Which supposedly has a nice, bright sound.
Anyway, enough with the trivia. I’d been planning just to do a post on alders in general when I noticed that a number of the cones had long curly things coming out of them. Suspecting galls, I took a photo. The tongues are, in fact, galls – the result of a fungal infection by the fungus Taphrina alni or one of the others in the genus. The fungus triggers the production of the long tongues, the purpose of which is to increase the surface area from which the fungus will release its spores. For all intents and purposes, though, the fungus is harmless; there’s no measurable cost to the tree besides some lost seed production.
Incidentally, I remembered my mom doing a post on alder cones last winter and returned to her blog to look it up; turned out she’d been blogging about the galls, too, rather than the shrub. They’re just that curious, I guess. Her post can be found here.