The red alder is a fairly large broadleaf tree, up to 30 m tall. Trees growing in the forest develop a slightly tapered trunk extending up to a narrow, rounded crown. But trees in the open have crowns that start near the ground giving it a broad cone shape.
The leaves are bright green above and grayish-green underneath. They are egg-shaped, with pointed tips, and coarsely toothed edges that tend to curl under. The flowers occur as either male or female clusters. Male flowers are in long, drooping catkins and female flowers are in short brown cones.
The female cones are oval-shaped, 2 cm long. The seed is a narrow v winged-shaped pod that twirls as it drops, sometimes on windy days, it can travel quite a distance. The bark is thin, greenish on young trees, turning grey to whitish with age. The inner bark turns orange when the damage has exposed it to the air, hence the name. It can be found on the coast of British Columbia and all of Vancouver Island.
The First Peoples used the bark for dyeing basket material, wood, wool, feathers, human hair, and skin. Red alder is used for furniture, flooring, and firewood.
It is a nitrogen fixer, meaning that it puts nitrogen back into the soil, unlike most plants. Small bumps, called nodules, on the roots house an organism that can convert the nitrogen in the soil into a form that plants can absorb. When the nitrogen-rich leaves fall, they provide nutritious compost on the forest floor. We call it the healing tree, as it puts more back into the soil than it takes out.