Summit Outside: The spruce: much more than a Christmas tree
One of the dominant tree species in our Colorado Rocky Mountain subalpine forests is the spruce.
A spruce is an evergreen tree or conifer belonging to genus Picea and there are about 35 species worldwide. The common species in Colorado are the Engelmann spruce, the blue spruce, the white spruce and the black spruce. The Engelmann spruce is the most cold-tolerant.
Amidst many of the dying Lodgepole pines are actually some nice stands of spruce in Summit County.
According to one source the word “spruce” is from Old French “Pruce,” the name of Prussia. The Engelmann spruce is named after a German botanist that came to the U.S. to study conifers.
The way to tell evergreen trees apart is the general shape, the color, the bark, the cones and the leaves or needles. Spruce trees can live over 1,000 years, reach 66-200 feet when mature and can be distinguished by their whorled branches and conical form.
The needles, or leaves, of spruce trees are attached singly to the branches in a spiral fashion, each needle on a small peg-like structure called a pulvinus. The cones hang downward from the upper branches of the tree. They are about 2 inches long, reddish brown in color and have very thin scales. Many can be found lying on the ground under the trees.
Spruce needles are very stiff and sharp-pointed. Each needle is square in cross section. When the needles are crushed they give off a strong smell.
The Engelmann spruce and white spruce can be hard to tell apart.
The scales of the white spruce cones are stiffer with smooth, rounded tips. The bark of the white spruce is grayish brown, with the inner bark tinged pink, while the bark of the Engelmann spruce is light brown to grey with inner bark silvery.
The white and Engelmann spruce can hybridize which complicates the
The black spruce has tiny rusty hairs on its young twigs and smaller cones. Engelmann spruce like higher altitudes and drier slopes (9,000 to 11,700 feet). Colorado blue spruce like moisture and lower elevations (7,000 to 10,000 feet).
The blue spruce leaves are needle-like, dull gray-green to bright blue. Engelmann cones are usually less than two inches long and dark buff; while the Colorado blue spruce cones are over three inches and light buff.
Twigs on Engelmann tend to be hairy; those on Colorado blue spruce tend to be smooth.
Trunks of Engelmann are usually clean between main branches; Colorado blue trunks are often cluttered with small twigs.
Besides providing nesting sites and shelter, the spruce tree provides food for many kinds of wildlife. Various birds like crossbills, evening grosbeaks and nuthatches eat the seeds while the foliage is eaten by grouse, rabbits and deer. Red squirrels cut open cones to eat the seeds, and also eat young, tender spruce shoots. The bark is food for porcupines and black bears, sometimes to the detriment of the trees.
Humans use spruce wood for many purposes, ranging from paper and general construction work, to many musical instruments including guitars, mandolins, cellos, violins and the soundboard of a piano.
Pitch made from the tree sap was used as lamp fuel or fire starter. Native Americans used root fibers to stitch canoes, make baskets and fishing nets. The Wright Brothers’ first aircraft was built of spruce.
Because this species has no insect or decay resistance qualities after logging, it is generally recommended for indoor construction purposes. Spruce wood, when left outside does not last more than 12-18 months.
Spruce leaves, bark and pitch have been used for food and medicine.
The leaves and branches, or the essential oils, can be used to brew spruce beer. The explorer James Cook was said to have drunk spruce beer every day.
The tips from the needles can be used to make spruce tip syrup. Spruce needles can be directly ingested or boiled into a tea which contains large amounts of vitamin C. Water stored in a spruce’s needles can provide a means of hydration in emergency situations. Teas made from the inner bark were said to cure kidney stones and stomach problems.
Native Americans used the sap to make a gum which was the basis of the first commercial production of chewing gum. Hardened sap was used to whiten teeth. Spruce pitch mixed with fat was used by native peoples to make salves to treat skin infections, burns, rashes and insect bites. The young growth was boiled to make an antiseptic. Boiled pitch was used for coughs and sore throats.
Spruce Essential Oil is steam distilled from the needles and twigs of the spruce tree. The pleasing scent was said to be “calming and elevating, excellent for yoga and meditative use.” Other traditional uses of Spruce Essential Oil are topical application for muscular aches and pains, poor circulation and rheumatism. Spruce Oil has also been used to improve breathing, asthma, bronchitis and coughs.
The spruce is a popular ornamental tree for landscaping, and they are admired for their evergreen color, and symmetrical, conical shape. These beautiful trees are used extensively as Christmas trees.
Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology Rutgers University, and has taught classes at CMC. She is now pursuing a career in art, specializing in nature and many of the animals she writes about. Her work can be seen locally.
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