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. 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 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.