Longtime Anchorage gardening writer loses a dozen spruce ‘monarchs’ to bark beetles

spruce tree

My good friend Wayne calls our large spruce trees “monarchs” and he is correct. These stately specimens start out as small studs in the landscape, but have the capability of growing tall enough to perforate our skies. When mature, they represent the power of nature to shape our surroundings. They are part of the bigness of Alaska.

These massive specimens support an amazing amount of life. One study showed spruce in Britain support 37 different insect species while those in Russia — probably a bit more like our clime — maintain a whopping 117 species of insects. Just sit under one of these safe harbors on a still, sunny day and observe the teeming life on and among the boughs.

Those insects, in turn, provide food for birds, and the trees are a safe place for nesting. Songbirds dart in and out of them. Eagles choose the tallest, to observe prey. Owls perch in them at night; their pellets can often be found in the morning. Our mammoths also support lichens, mosses and fungi. There is a sophisticated civilization in every one of these stately trees.

If you have even just one monarch on your property, you have squirrels. Spruce trees have two kinds of cones. The familiar female ones contain seeds and these are the ones the squirrels go for — though they have to be wary of those eagles. There are smaller, 1/2 inch male spruce cones. They don’t last long but these produce prodigious amounts of pollen before they disappear.

In winter storms the boughs of tall spruce are covered with snow. Each becomes a wave out of Katsushika Hokusai’s “Wave” print — look it up. These limbs strain under tons of snow, but when the wind blows, they calve like glaciers and bounce free, a beautiful sight.

I may be the garden columnist in town, but that doesn’t mean our property is immune from the tragedy caused by successful spruce bark beetles. We all hope — and some even think — we can escape climate change and global warming. It is just not so; not yet, anyhow and spruce bark beetles help prove this.

So, last week, we had to finally remove not one, but a dozen monarchs. Well, we didn’t remove them, actually. Monarchs are too big for my battery Skil and felling them is dangerous even when they are in the best of locations. Best to leave some yardening chores, such as felling 20-ton trees, to professionals.


I had been putting this off for a long time. I kept telling myself the woodpeckers needed them — we had all three species, and the eagles still sat in their tops. But the fact of the matter is each time a stately old spruce tree is cut down, the surrounding landscape becomes common, ordinary and the view Outside-like, regular and pedestrian.

Our dead monarchs were unusually large and beautiful specimens. The expert cutter we hired had to climb several of them — amazing! — and cut them down from the top in three or four pieces so as to avoid dropping them down on the house, the deck or worse, a garden bed.

Our once beautiful monarchs no longer stand. They are now down, bucked up into fairly manageable sections. Our yard looks like the ancient ruins of Agora on the island of Kos in Greece, strewn with broken stone columns. Only ours are wooden.

Understandably, there is a bit of sadness around here. Sure, life goes on and this is nature’s way. We do still have other monarchs that look healthy. And there is so much more sunlight to coax the little studs of new spruce to grow to monarch size.

Still, we mourn. How can one not?

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar

Boyer’s Blossom Festival: 3 p.m.-8 p.m. June 4. Protect and share the late Bob Boyer’s unique urban orchard at a Blossom Festival. 645 E. 81st Ave., off Old Seward, just north of Dimond Boulevard.

Alaska Botanical Garden: The nursery is open and the gardens are greened up and starting to bloom. Time to visit. Time to join. Check out the schedule and offerings at A great botanical garden is what makes a town great!

Gardens: Water. Get some of those weeds.

Lawns: In theory “No Mow May” is officially over. That excuse for not mowing is gone. Don’t worry, join a “Just The Same For June” movement.

Dandelions: If you think spraying is going to control yours, think again. The reason you need to spray several times a year is because the dandelions always win the war. You can’t eradicate them unless you make it a full-time job. Mow them, don’t spray them.

Outdoor greenhouses: You really need ventilation to keep temperatures in the zone — 70 to 80 degrees.

Raspberries: If you haven’t removed last year’s dead canes, do it now. Watering plants when it is dry is the only way to get a decent crop.

Jeff Lowenfels | Alaska gardening and growing

Jeff Lowenfels has written a weekly gardening column for the ADN for more than 45 years. His columns won the 2022 gold medal at the Garden Communicators International conference. He’s authored several books on organic gardening, and his latest book, "Teaming With Bacteria," is available on Amazon. Reach him at