Alpha Trees, Dogs, Gardeners, and Crafters

Have you ever heard of an ‘alpha tree’?

My sister had an arborist come and trim some of her trees and he looked through a small wooded area in their back yard to make recommendations on thinning it out. The area is a triangle shape and the three corners are anchored by a sugar maple (Acer saccharum), pictured above from a week ago before the leaves started to turn, an old spruce (Picea abies) and an American beech (Fagus grandiflora).

Between the sugar maple and the spruce is a ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba) and the rest of the area includes an old black pine (Pinus nigra) and at least one spruce that is completely dead.

The arborist said the sugar maple was the alpha tree in that corner wooded area.

I’ve never heard anyone refer to an alpha tree before but I assume that it means that it is the dominant tree in that area. The sugar maple is probably the tallest tree there, though the beech might be just as tall. And it was probably one of the first trees planted in the back yard some 45 years ago.

What does it mean to be the alpha tree? Does the alpha tree get all its nutrients first? Do the other trees in an area know or sense in any way which one is the alpha tree? If you have to thin out a wooded area, do you leave the alpha tree? What if the alpha tree dies? Does another tree become the alpha tree or do the trees mourn the loss of the alpha tree and ‘pine’ away. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) What if all the trees are of similar size? Then is the alpha tree determined by species? Is there a natural order of things in the tree world that we can only imagine?

Has anyone heard of this concept of an alpha tree? If you have, let me know, as my brief online search didn’t provide much insight. I even looked in a couple of books on trees and came up with nothing.

In my own back yard, the current alpha tree, if there is such a thing, is probably the honey locust, (Gleditsia triacanthos) since it’s the tallest tree. On the side yard, the new ginkgomust be alpha because it is the only tree over there.

We have some other ‘alphas’ in our family besides this sugar maple.

My ten year old niece Sophie is the ‘alpha dog’ in her household, in a good way. The actual dogs follow her around because they know she’s the boss of them. I don’t know how this came about, but that’s how it is.

I’m pretty sure I’m the ‘alpha gardener’ in the family. My siblings usually ask me their gardening related questions. They like to know what I’m planting and why. When I posted that I was going to get a Carolina Silverbell tree, my youngest sister (Sister with the Homestead) commented that she wanted one, too, and I got an email from my oldest sister asking about it and should she get one. (I talked them both out of getting one because of the acidic soil requirements).

My oldest sister is the ‘alpha crafter’ of the family. Quilting, spinning, weaving, knitting, crocheting, she does it all. She has a big loom and makes us all indestructible kitchen towels on it and knits socks and sweaters. Last year at Thanksgiving, I over heard her say that she didn’t think she had spun enough yarn to finish knitting a sweater she was working on. Only an alpha crafter would say that.

Even though I’m not the alpha crafter in my family, I’m going to post someday soon about some hand made gifts for the gardener that anyone (nearly) can make. Really, maybe tomorrow.

Are there any ‘alphas’ in your garden or family?

(This is Muncie, one of Sophie's pack.)


  1. I think the arborist is from a pack which is why he knew about alpha species. Did your sister hear him howl while he was looking over the trees?

    In our family my sister is the Alpha Baker. I am the Alpha crafter.

    Luna likes to think she is Alpha female of our pack. I know this because I constantly have to remind her who is truly Alpha. Dearly Beloved just watches the fireworks since he is Alpha Male in our pack.

  2. I am definitely the alpha in our family, although Coco is not afraid to express her (often strong) opinions and she sometimes beats me to the first ripe tomato of the season.

    Dad is the Alpha Handyman in my family. If anyone is putting in a fence, changing out a sink, replacing windows, re-roofing a house, rewiring a basement, or any other crazy thing, he usually at least gets a consultant call.

  3. Ha!--I remember wanting a loom for awhile when I was a little boy. Too funny. My poor parents must have been just baffled.

    I took a tree-pruning class taught by a professional arborist, and there was no mention of alpha trees. I think your sister's arborist's coined the phrase for trees, and I like it.

    It seems obvious that the sugar maple would be the alpha of the trees you list. Ginkgo and spruce grow so slowly; they could only be alphas to shrubs, and only after many years. Maples suck up tons of water, too. Definitely the dominant tree.

    I've been trying to figure out which is the alpha kitten of the two we adopted some weeks ago. We think it might actually be the slightly younger, rather smaller one. 1) She gets all the grooming attention, and seems to give very little in return, 2) She wins all the play-fights; in fact, it seems like the big one lets her win, 3) She is a surer climber and less clutzy than the big one; I think that gives her an aura of greater self-confidence.

    But, the big one is the better hunter and gets more aggressive with the interactive toy-play.

    So, who knows.

    During the summer, the tomatoes are the alphas in my garden, but during the rest of the year it's the bamboo.

  4. Alpha trees is a new concept to me too. I'm guessing my Honey Locust is also the alpha tree in my yard since the only other contenders are Silver Maples and we know all about them. My puny Amur Maple doesn't even count yet.

    Years ago I was the alpha crafter in the family, now I don't make anything (including dinner).

  5. What are you talking about. All my children are alphas. (lol)

  6. I did not know of alpha trees, but it makes sense. After a wildfire, I've often heard that it was good: the biggest trees (I suppose alpha trees) have burnt and the smallest ones can develop at last. So obviously, some trees are stronger than others.

  7. I will need to ask Pam at Naturewoman about alpha trees. I have never heard of that, either. Makes sense, though. I would think that the trees with the largest roots soak up moisture while the others "pine" away...

    Chloe is alpha dog to Bella. I am alpha human to Chloe and Bella. As far as husband being, alpha, I'm not so sure about that :o)

  8. I think Sugar Maples are the dominant tree whenever they grow in mixed forests... is alpha another way of saying dominant?

    So everyone wants a Silverbelle?? That proves you are the Alpha Gardener, Carol! Our family pack is so scattered - don't think we have the critical mass for anyone to be alpha anymore. Back when we all lived within visiting range, I was the Alpha gardener - by default, rather than dominance ;-]

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  9. As you know there's a lot of kitties at Bliss and the alpha cat is .....
    me! And we all know it. ;-) If I wouldn't be the alpha cat my life wouldn't be worth living with all those cats about all trying to boss me around.

    Never heard of alpha trees before though!

    BTW on my blog I explain why I don't winter clean in my garden.

  10. I like the term alpha tree. But maybe we are just imposing our need to have a hierarchy upon trees...

    Ginger is alpha animal in our house. Jack is alpha child but I know as soon as Alexandra gets bigger she'll knock the alpha right out of him!

  11. Yes, Carol, " I am the Alpha and the Omega..." and so it goes with trees. The strongest will survive in the forest.

    You won't find much information on it on the internet but it exists in nature : The trees that survive under adverse circumstances are the alphas.

  12. Thanks all for being great "alpha commenters"! I agree with the general sentiment that "alpha" is just a quirky way to indicate which is the dominant or largest tree in the grove.

    Carol at May Dreams Gardens

  13. I've never heard of "alpha" applied to anything other than pack animals. I am the alpha female in the house, but the beta female (my 7-yr-old) thinks she should be alpha. I see this struggle going on for another dozen years or so. I hope I win.


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