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.

Postcard from Southeast Alaska

For the past 10 days I have been enjoying meeting plants in southeast Alaska, where it’s spring. This part of the world is also experiencing climate change and the season is more advanced than usual – we’ve had a number of hot, sunny days which locals say is unusual. Rain is usually more likely but we’ve had only a small shower or two,  nothing much.

Our guides have been knowledgeable and enthusiastic, even if he or she has been a young American from “the lower 48” working at a summer job. Sam has been in Hoonah for only  6 weeks but has taken the trouble to learn enough of the local Tlingit language (pronounced Klingit – it’s not an easy language having, for instance, 57 sounds not found in any other language) to introduce himself in the traditional way and has been entrusted with several Tlingit stories local to Hoonah, which he is allowed to share with visitors. Susan has lived in Sitka for 47 years and imparts the history of the island, which was the capital of Russian-America, from Tlingit to present day, while in Wrangell we were particularly fortunate to be led by Brittany, a local Tlingit woman, who has a BA and is now in the second year of her law degree. Read some Tlingit history here.

They have all mentioned local plants of interest, from berries to orchids, as part of their tour and have been good at pointing out ones we shouldn’t touch – there are several!

The Tongass National Forest is the largest in the US and covers most of Southeast Alaska so every time we walked in a national park it was the Tongass, which is a temperate rainforest comprised primarily of western hemlock, western red cedar and Sitka spruce trees. Read a 2007 National Geographic article here.

In a patch of sunlight in the forest I noticed pink flowers growing at the base of a tree. A later check of my Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers by Verna E Pratt (2004) I saw that it was a round leaf orchid (Galearis rotundifolia). Other sources say it is found right across Alaska, Canada and Greenland and parts of the northern US.

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Galearis rotundifolia. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Muskeg are swampy places with acidic soil that stunts the trees that grow there and it was in a muskeg near Hoonah that I met another Alaskan orchid, the aromatic bog candle (Platanthera dilatata), although this is also native to much of Canada and other parts of the US. Read more about the plant and see more photos here. I was thrilled to see swathes of it growing by the roadside as we went back into town but we were on a bus so all I could do was admire it out the window.

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The bog candle orchid, seen in the Spasski Valley near Hoonah. The white ‘fuzzy’ blob towards the bottom of the stem appeared to be the work of a spittlebug. Photo: Sandra Simpson