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Scraggly? Yes. Unimposing? Yes. But black spruce symbolizes Alaska

The sun breaks through a snow- and frost-covered spruce tree at Hilltop Ski Area in January. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

DONNELLY — When I look from my living room window I see horses, dogs and lots of spruce trees.

The trees that circle our properties near Donnelly and Paxson are primarily black spruce (picea marianna).  White spruce (picea glauca) are also present, but scarce in both locations.

Alaska's state tree is the Sitka spruce (picea sitchensis), found along Alaska's southern coastal areas. I suspect the timber industry may have had a hand in the designation of the Sitka spruce in the early 1960s. Economically viable and thriving near the state capital, Sitka spruce is the tallest conifer in the world, reaching heights of more than 300 feet.

The white spruce and black spruce that dominate the landscape of mainland Alaska are much smaller. White spruce commonly reach 100 feet, with the largest on record a 112-foot specimen located on the Tok River floodplain. White spruce, which prefer to grow in well-drained soils with no permafrost, is frequently harvested along Interior rivers for use in local timber industries and for house logs.

Black spruce, with its wide distribution, is the most common conifer on the mainland. And it's a tree with a personality. Short, scraggly and growing in dense stands, it's subject to raging wildfires that spread rapidly through sap-filled branches. Fire is actually beneficial to these bog dwellers because the heat speeds release of their seeds.

Seeds of swamp spruce are the smallest of all spruces, weighing about 1/25,000th of an ounce. No more do I wonder about the size of the red squirrels' midden pile. With only 50 seeds per cone, it's a labor-intensive way to score a meal. Fortunately for the tree, the seeds are not released at the same time, with some staying in the cone 20 years.

200-year lifespan

Actually, that's not such a long time for this small conifer that boasts an average lifespan of almost 200 years. One documented specimen in Labrador was 350 years old.  But size is no indicator of age. The old Canadian was only 3.5 inches around and head high.  Most of the trees around our place are 20 to 30 feet tall.

Most stands of black spruce are similar in size, having regenerated from the same forest fire. Black spruce can be differentiated from other spruces in several ways. Its bark is coarser and darker. However, the cones are better indicators. Black spruce cones are pudgy, rarely over an inch long and tend to cluster near the top of the tree.

White spruce cones are twice that size and scattered through the branches. White spruce has longer needles, too. One more telltale sign of the swamp spruce is a dense cover of small hairs on the bark of young branch tips. In some instances, black spruce will hybridize with other spruces, making positive identification tougher.

While not as economically important as other trees, bog spruce are still a commodity used extensively in the wood pulp industry,  which is finding more use in cross-laminated timber because of its tight growth rings. Black spruce is the primary source of firewood in much of Alaska. It is also commonly used in the manufacture of chopsticks for the fast-food industry. In years gone by, its roots have been used for making baskets, fishnets and even lines.

The value of this common tree does not end there.  Red squirrels and grouse call black spruce stands home. Varying hares depend on dense stands as cover from predators and the young shoots are an important food source. In much of Alaska, caribou use black spruce-dominated taiga as cover and munch on the lichen growth often found there. Moose gravitate toward stands near timberline during the fall rut.

Black spruce are tough to kill.  They are very successful at "pitching out" spruce beetles that attack mature trees. When the beetle bores through bark, the tree secretes pitch to push the bugs out. White spruce do this too, though not nearly as effectively.

The shallow roots of bog spruce make it susceptible to blow downs, and often this facilitates germination of the cones that cluster in the treetops.

Clearly, the small, tough spruce that dominates my viewscape are more than just another tree.  Scraggly?  Yes. Unimposing?  Yes.  But like the raven and the fireweed, black spruce symbolizes the Alaska bush.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

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