Plant stories: Sitka spruce

One of the positive things about having to go back through posts and photos is the realisation of how many things I’ve meant to write but haven’t. So, harking back to my trip to southeast Alaska last year brings this post about the Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis).

According to A Brief History of Trees by Gertrude Briggs (Max Press, 2016), there are 35 species of spruce, all part of the pine family. Found widely in North America and northern Europe, spruce typically grow high in mountainous regions with poor soil.

The word spruce came into the English language in the 16th century from ‘Pruse’, a name for Prussia (now part of modern Germany). Spruce seems to have been a generic term for commodities brought to England by Hanseatic merchants (especially beer, boards and wooden chests, and leather) For a time Prussia equated in English minds as a land of luxuries. Leather jerkins became fashionable and by the end of the 1500s, the association between Prussia and fashion was strong enough that ‘spruce’ was used generally of anyone who was fashionable or smart in appearance. The trees were so named because they were thought to come from Prussia.

French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1536 learned from Iroquois to treat scurvy with tea made from spruce needles – and saved many men on his expedition along the St Lawrence River in Canada from dying of scurvy. Spruce beer, made from the tips of branches, boiled for hours, strained and sweetened with molasses became a medicine for sailors on long journeys. Native Americans and Canadians used all parts of the tree as medicine, for food or building materials.

Sitka spruce growing on Betton Island, near Ketchikan, Alaska. Photo: Sandra Simpson

This is a tree that can withstand wet feet – Sitka Island in southeast Alaska has an annual rainfall of 2286mm (90 inches) a year! But they also grow in even wetter places like Ketchikan where the average annual rainfall is a whopping 3835mm (151 inches) – and which explains why locals wear gumboots as everyday shoes! The name Sitka, by the way, comes from the native Tlingit word Shi-attika, which means ‘the community on the outside [seaward side] of the island’.

Ronald M Lanner in his 2013 book Conifers of California (Cachuma Press) says that the tree’s 2900km (1800 mile) range down the Pacific coast is restricted to a narrow, fog-bound belt that dwindles to 48km (30 miles) wide in California. Two-thirds of a Sitka spruce’s year is likely to be cloudy but from Vancouver south they’ll have at least seven frost-free months for growing. 

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Cones on a Sitka spruce in Alaska. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Sitka spruce is the tallest growing of it genus – the tallest recorded is in British Columbia at 97.5m (320 feet). Old-growth forests produce trees with narrow but evenly spaced rings making the timber very strong and useful for such things as aeroplane construction (Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose flying boat contained some Sitka spruce but was mainly birch wood), boat building, and sound boards in grand pianos and violins.

The three main tree varieties in Tongass National Forest (the largest temperate rainforest in the world at 69,000 square kilometres, and which more or less covers the coast area of southeast Alaska) are Sitka spruce (identified by its pebbly bark), western red cedar (stringy bark) and western hemlock (bends at the top). Sitka spruce trees blown down in storms act as ‘nurse’ trees as they decay for germination and growth of new seedlings

David Douglas (of Douglas fir fame) introduced Sitka spruce to Britain in 1831.

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Tree of the moment: Eucalyptus caesia

Strolling through the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne last month and spotted this  beauty with its scarlet flowers and white bark and looking especially striking against the blue sky.

The flowers of Eucalyptus caesia. Photo: Sandra Simpson

An entry on the Gardens website recommends this tree for home gardens and says: There are two distinct growth forms which have been previously described and sold as E. caesia subsp. caesia, which is a small tree, growing from 6-9m tall, and the other is E. caesia subsp. magna (also sold in nurseries as ‘Silver Princess’), which may grow up to 12m tall, with narrow wispy stems and long weeping side branches.

In both forms, the large rich pink or reddish flowers occur in drooping bunches in autumn and winter. The new shoots and leaves start reddish in colour then, like the flower buds and fruit, develop a grey waxy coating which adds a ghostly appearance to this very attractive species. The bark of mature trees is minni-ritchi type, rolling and peeling off in slender ribbons, adding further character to the tree.

 It prefers well drained soils and full sun, and is very drought tolerant once established. The leaves may get fungal leaf spot during damp winters or if there is poor air movement around the plant. The trees can be coppiced to ground level to encourage new stems.

The silvery-white trunk and gumnuts. Photo: Sandra Simpson

I shouted myself a beautiful, large book – Eucalypts, a Celebration by John Wrigley and Murray Fagg (Allen & Unwin, 2012) which says:

“This species is probably the best known of the small ornamental eucalypts in cultivation. In nature it is rare, always associated with granite outcrops in the eastern wheatbelt of Western Australia … The silvery-grey branches are pendulous and often weighed down in late winter and spring by the large pink flowers and urn-shaped gumnuts. A subspecies (subsp. magna), often sold as ‘Silver Princess’, has larger flowers and fruits, with the pendulous branches often touching the ground. Both subspecies thrive in well-drained soil on sunny sites in areas of winter rainfall.”

This eucalyptus is of the mallee type, which means it grows several stems from an underground lignotuber and will grow no higher than 10m. There are areas in Australia where shrubby mallee eucalypts are the dominant form.

Back again!

Sorry for the long silence – it started with being overwhelmed by the amount I had to do to replace all the missing photos. The easiest thing was to do nothing but I knew that wouldn’t last and I have made a start on getting the images back in place. There will still be posts with big, grey rectangles in them but I’ll just carry on with the work now as I have time. (Even while I was avoiding posting, I was keeping the Events calendar up-to-date.)

A family death meant that instead of being away from home for a few days in Melbourne I was away for the best part of a week as we set off down country as soon as we arrived home. And I didn’t feel much like garden fun for a bit.

And then there was a flurry of paid employment to be getting on with – one of the results of that has been the launch of the 2017 Tauranga Arts Festival, plus I’ve been combating a particularly nasty lurgy that’s going around …

Heading towards spring seems like a good time to get back into it so postings will begin again. Best wishes to you all, Sandra