Alder is another tree that puzzles: were I to be offered something like a wooden rocket, that establishes readily and can take any amount of coppicing, and that, despite its weed-like celerity, provides hot firewood amongst other goods; if it likes water and indeed stands out, so far as Thomas Hale was concerned, as ‘useful for defending a mellow Shore from being undermin’d by the Stream of a River’; if on top of that its leaves were bitter and so the leaves of the alder ‘are refused by cattle’; if it might thus put animals off from wading across the river, and thus contribute to the water’s role as a fence – would you not then be tempted to plant it, and in plenty – a plant furthermore so thoroughly admired by the picturesque school, glossy of leaf and bold of habit? Why then do we assume when we see alder in a landscape that it cannot have been planted by a perfect professional such as Capability Brown? There’s the puzzle. Instead we tend to think that where it survives around lakes – at the New River at Wotton and on the water at Burton Constable, it is a weed, come in from God Knows Where because it likes the conditions. Brown bought alders in bulk for Burton Constable, but my fellow-travellers assume that it was used as a nurse tree within the clumps rather than planted where we see it today, around the water.
Our reasons for discarding it are first that we imagine Brown’s lakes to have been clear of trees, largely because his critics did – might we not compromise with the suggestion that it was stooled as a shrub, and so provided shade for fishing pools, prevented cattle from damaging the banks and protected them against erosion.
Not a bad plant.