Les Palmer: All about the black spruce

If you live on the Kenai Peninsula, you live either in or near black spruce, Picea mariana.

This is a tree that actually prefers acidic soil and cold, harsh conditions. In North America, it’s found in Alaska, some of the other northern states and Canada. When you’re fishing any river in Southcentral Alaska, that “sweeper” leaning over the water probably is a black spruce. A scraggly evergreen that looks like it was designed by Dr. Seuss, it’s also called swamp spruce.

Black spruce are common on the Kenai Peninsula, and so are white spruce. How do you tell the difference? The seed cones of the black spruce are pudgy, only about an inch long, and purplish, and it’s needles are only about ½ inch long. On the white spruce, the cones are 1 ½ to 2 inches long, pointier and light brown, and the needles are ¾ to 1 inch long. Another clue: Black spruce prefer lower, wetter places than white spruce.

An average black spruce on the Kenai Peninsula is probably about 30 feet tall, but the species can grow to more than 70 feet. Alaska’s tallest, according to an article in the Alaska Science Forum (Aug. 16, 2010), is a 71-footer on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The 2012 National Register of Big Trees lists the national champion black spruce, found in Hancock, Maine, as 76 feet high and 75 inches in circumference. The biggest in the register isn’t necessarily the tallest, as trees are scored by measurements of height, circumference and crown.

The oldest black spruce in the world was found in 2010, in the highlands of Labrador. Approximately 350 years old, this shrub-like specimen stood head high and measured only 3.5 inches in diameter. Harsh growing conditions caused it to be stunted. Due to fires, most black spruces live only 50 to 150 years.

On the Kenai Peninsula, fire killed spruce trees in large areas as recently as 1947 and 1969. You’ll often see spruce trees among others that are the same height, because they were all “born” at the same time — soon after a fire. The heat of a fire opens the cones, speeding up the release of seeds.

After a fire, birch and aspen come in where black spruce dominated before. In time — absent another fire — the spruce will dominate again.

Indigenous people of North America used the wood, roots and bark of this tough, flexible tree for many useful things, including lines, bows, baskets, lances and fishing nets, to name just a few. In modern times, the black spruce has been used mainly for wood pulp and firewood.

The spruce beetle, a bark beetle that has killed most stands of white spruce on the Kenai Peninsula over the past 30 years, has little luck when attacking a healthy black spruce. In order to feed and breed, bark beetles must bore into the phloem, the soft tissue directly under the bark. When beetles and their larvae bore into a spruce tree, a sticky resin flows from the wound. A black spruce is better at “pitching out” invading beetles than a white spruce, although even a black spruce can eventually be girdled and die as a result of a serious, prolonged attack.

I have a lot of respect for these hardy, resilient trees. Stands of black spruce provide spruce grouse, red squirrels and other wildlife with food and shelter. I often choose a black spruce for a Christmas tree. Skinnier than other conifers, it takes up less space, and its scruffy looks give it character that’s lacking in other evergreens. Smaller specimens are useful as walking sticks, campfire pokers and clubs for bashing vampires.

If I were king for a day, I’d make the black spruce Alaska’s state tree. The Sitka spruce has held that title since 1962, but most of the Alaska’s Sitka spruce have since been cut down and shipped to Japan. The black spruce, on the other hand, remains as common and neighborly as the raven, and it likely always will.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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