By Janelle Eklund
Two species of spruce trees make their home in the Copper Basin: Black and White. How do you tell the difference? Black spruce tend to grow in cold wet areas, often on north facing slopes, and in areas you might find permafrost. Consequently their roots grow out instead of down. They are usually a small tree only growing 15'-30' high but can grow taller. Their spindly topsy turvy shapes and forms can look like they imbibed too much! This 'drunken forest' gets even more creative in the winter when snow piles on the misshapen branches and all kinds of creature figures emerge.
White spruce is taller and likes to grow in open forests, in well drained soils on south facing slopes, and sandy soils along edges of waterways where the running water thaws the soil. Unlike black spruce it is rare to see it growing where permafrost is close to the surface. Black spruce has shorter and blunter needles than white spruce. The twigs of black spruce are covered with short reddish hairs, whereas white spruce twigs are hairless. You might need to get out your handy little hand lens to take a close look at the hairs. Growth rings on black spruce are very close together and can be so close you would need a powerful hand lens to find the division. White spruce rings are further apart and easily distinguishable. The cones of these two trees are distinctly different. Black spruce cones are short and somewhat egg shaped. They remain on the tree for several years and can be seen in clusters on the top of the tree. White spruce cones are longer, more cylindrical, and fall once they mature.
I have one pet peeve that I hear people in the Copper Basin say time and time again. I will try to clear this up once and for all. Now, I know many of us grew up in the lower 48, or if we didn't, we know someone who did. And I realize it's probably just a habit and habits are hard to break. But that is no excuse for calling all those cones under spruce trees pine cones! No, there are no pine trees in the Copper Basin - thus no pine cones - get the connection? There, I said it. Thank you for listening.
Spruce trees are important habitat for a variety of mammals and birds. Moose may occasionally browse the saplings. It is a major food source for snowshoe hares, especially in the winter. Red squirrels keep busy all summer cutting, collecting and storing green spruce cones from which they eat the seeds. They will sit in the tree and busily work away, dropping the cones that fall to the base of the tree. They will strip the cones to get at the seeds and the left over's create huge piles called middens which are used for food storage. They also make their nest in the tree which could be in a hole in the tree or a nest on branches made of twigs and other debris. They make their nest so tight they can actually be waterproof. And then the voles may come along and scrounge any uneaten seeds off the ground. Spruce grouse feed entirely on spruce needles in the winter. Chickadees, nuthatches, crossbills and grosbeaks will extract the seeds from open spruce cones and eat seeds off the ground.
Spruce trees are not only important to animals and birds but also to another plant. Kinnikinnick hosts a fungus that gets into the tips of spruce buds on the branches and confuses the growth regulators. Consequently, too much growth hormone is produced, and the branches grow profusely in all directions, and then die. These fungus clusters on the branches of the spruce tree are often called witches broom, and often resemble a nest. Some animals, like squirrels can take advantage of them for a nest.
The Spruce Bark Beetle also depend on spruce trees for propagation of their species. The beetles bore into the bark and lay their eggs in the live cambium layer. The larvae eat through the cambium and can girdle and kill the tree if they eat all the way around. A healthy tree will fight back by drowning the beetles with sap, but during the late 80’s and early 90’s a dry spell stressed the trees so they couldn’t produce as much sap, and the beetle population exploded, killing millions of spruce.
This brings us to the next species that depends on the spruce tree - you and me! All those dead spruce trees the beetles killed make for good firewood before the tree rots. Spruce trees also make great lumber for us to build our houses, be it log or milled. These trees keep us warm in more ways than one!
Spruce tips can also provide us with a nourishing tea and are a great source of Vitamin C. Gather a handful of new spring tips and steep in hot water. You can usually tell the new tips as their color is a brighter green, and just plain looks new! You can get creative with your tea and "spruce it up" (pun intended) with cinnamon, cloves, orange or lemon slices, or anything that suits your fancy. The tea is also great for coughs and colds.
I like to make Spruce Ale, a delicious fermented beverage. To a two quart glass jar add: ¾ cup spruce tips (I freeze them for winter use), ½ cup fresh lime or lemon juice, ¼ - ½ cup Rapadura (unprocessed cane sugar), 2 tsp sea salt, ¼ cup whey, and fill the jar with water. To make the whey put about a cup or more of plain whole milk yogurt in cheese cloth, tie up the cheese cloth and hang over a bowl for about 4 hours. The liquid is the whey which helps in the fermenting process. Cover tightly and let sit on the counter for three days and then put into refrigerator. It will keep for months. Strain to serve. I like to add just a little to a glass of kombucha, or you can mix it with carbonated water.
Spruce buds can be chopped and added for flavor to a salad or a great spice when cooking a roast or other wild game or meat.
In ancient times the spruce sap was used for healing sores and protecting wounds from infection.
Spruce tips have also been used to make beer. Captain Cook rationed it to his crew to prevent scurvy.
So you can see how important spruce trees are!
As with picking the fruits of any plant it is important to scatter your pickings out so as to leave the plant as little stress as possible. And don't forget to give thanks to the plant for its gift of nourishment and beauty.
I leave you with this excerpt from 'Advice From a Tree' by Ilan Shamir:
Stand tall and proud
Sink your roots deeply into the earth
Reflect the light of your true nature
Think long term
Go out on a limb
Remember your place among all living beings
Embrace with joy the changing seasons
For each yields its own abundance
The Energy and Birth of Spring
The Growth and Contentment of Summer
The Wisdom to let go like leaves in the Fall
The Rest and Quiet renewal of Winter
From my light to yours-
By Janelle Eklund
It feels so great to have the sun linger in the sky for increasing minutes each day. Even though the temperatures are still a bit cold I don't care what anyone says - spring is in the air! I am writing this on March 27, and walking down the road today it was obvious the sun was having a contest with the cold air that bit into my lungs. Even though the temperature was barely hitting 20° I actually saw a puddle of water where the sun was making its mark. The contest didn't last too long as the sun dipped toward the horizon and the breath of winter laughed and blew ice back to the puddle, winning this contest! But even as the icy breath of winter lingers, the warmth of the sun chips away at winters grip on south facing slopes. Before we know it the first flowers of spring will be popping up and making their debut despite lingering snow patches. Keep your eye out on these south facing slopes for the inevitable explosion of the wild crocus, also known as pasqueflower, spreading its purple-blue hue across the patchwork landscape. This delicate harbinger of spring begins blossoming its cheery face close to the ground on dry, sandy or gravelly soils, south facing bluffs and steep slopes. The Tonsina bluff is a likely spot to see springs first symphony of crocus hues. The stems, leaves, and petals are hairy, making me think those hairs help keep the plant warm during the cold transition of winter into spring. I have often seen this plant stubbornly growing through lingering snow patches.
The crocus is poisonous and irritating to the skin so enjoy it where it makes its home, take a photo of it, or capture its beauty in a sketch book. The crocus blooms make a short debut with its cheery purple face and yellow nose and then moves on to give other plants a chance to show off. As the crocus continues its life the stem and lacy leaves grow tall, the pretty purple head gradually transforms into a fluffy tan colored seed ball, and by the time it completes its cycle it is pretty unrecognizable. There were times later in the summer when I wondered what in the heck is that tall dried up plant? It's kind of like, as I grow older I'm starting not to recognize my own face in the mirror - hah! We just need to keep in touch and see the beauty in every stage of life.
So on one of these sunny "spring" days take a walk and enjoy the first splashes of colorful crocuses singing praise for the coming of spring and new life. And as spring turns into summer follow its growth into old age, and give thanks for its grace and beauty.
From My Light to Yours-
By Janelle Eklund
Enjoy an early scent of spring by inhaling the intoxicating perfume of balsam poplar buds when picking them for making a very healing salve called Balm of Gilead. The winter months up through March and April in Alaska is the time of year to pick the buds before they leaf out. They can be picked anytime during the winter and into spring when the buds are still a little frozen and the sap is not so sticky - the trick is keeping your fingers from freezing. Once the buds warm they are very sticky and much of the valuable resin is gone. I try not to pick all the buds as high as I can reach but leave some for leafing out.
To make a big batch of salve, which lasts me about 2 years, pick two cups of buds and put them in a glass quart jar. You can halve the recipe. Fill the jar with first cold pressed olive oil, preferably organic. Cover the top with a piece of paper towel or cheese cloth and secure it with a metal ring. Put it in a warm place which could be by the stove, furnace, sunny spot or warm crock pot, so the temperature is between 80° and 110°. My crock pot gets too warm - you don't want to burn the oil - so my husband made a rheostat with a dimmer switch and I plug the crock pot into that and get the perfect temperature. I just set the whole jar in the crock pot. Leave the crock pot lid off so the water vapors from the buds can escape. Any water left in the finished product will cause it to mold.
Stir it with a stick or chopstick every day, to keep the buds covered, until they sink. Leave it in this warm environment for at least six weeks. The longer the better, as more medicinal qualities emerge from the buds infusing the oil.
Once you are ready to use it strain off the buds through cheesecloth or in a glass coffee press. You can use the oil on your skin as is, or make a salve by firming it up with bees wax. Put the oil in a double boiler, being careful not to let any water in the oil. Have the heat on low - just enough to melt the bees wax when you add it. Again, you don't want to burn the oil. Rule of thumb is 1/4 cup of bees wax to one cup of oil. I put in a little beeswax at a time and check it so it doesn't make the salve too hard. To check the consistency put a tablespoon of the mixture in the freezer for a minute or two. If it's too soft add more bees wax. Remove from heat immediately and pour into one or two ounce jars - or larger jars of your choice, preferably dark colored glass jars. It sets up fairly fast so don't dink around getting it into the jars. Store in a cool place. It will last years.
Oh, you say, now what do I use if for? Besides smelling so awesomely good, Balm of Gilead has very good healing qualities. It's an anti-inflammatory (cooling things down); anitmicrobial (kills things that can infect you); an analgesic (calms the pain); an anitoxident. It can be used for healing cuts, scrapes, rashes (including diaper), skin irritations, frostbite, etc. It can relieve nasal congestion or stop nose bleeds by putting a tiny bit in your nostril. You can also use it as a steam for congestion by putting about a tablespoon in water and inhale the vapors, being careful not to burn yourself. Children should be supervised. The balm is also healing for sores on animals. So capture the essence of the 'healing tree' and enjoy it year around.
From my light to yours-
By Janelle Eklund
The genus, cottonwood, has three species in Alaska: balsam poplar, black cottonwood, and quaking aspen. Black Cottonwood is typically found in Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska. The balsam poplar tree is scattered throughout the Copper Basin where you will usually see it cohabitating with its cousin, quaking aspen. The two trees are of similar height but have distinctly different leaves and trunks. Balsam poplar trunks have grey rough, furrowed outer bark, resembling scales. Quaking aspen has smooth whitish outer bark and what looks like little black eyes scattered up its trunk. The leaves of the balsam poplar are somewhat elongated, 2 1/2" - 4 1/2" long, and quaking aspen leaves are more rounded at 1"-2" long. The petioles, or stem, of the quaking aspen leaf is long and flat and set at right angles to the leaf blades instead of rounded, which accounts for its 'quaking' in the wind. This 'quaking' helps bring sun to both sides of the leaf. The Aspen is considered one of the biggest organisms on earth. It usually doesn't reproduce from seeds. The root of this (pun intended) is literally the mother tree sends out shoots underground and suckers grow out from these shoots into genetically identical trees to the parent tree. These are called clones and since they are all connected they are one big organism! In the fall you can tell which trees are clones because they will all drop their leaves at the same time.
The flower clusters on both balsam poplar and quaking aspen are called catkins. On both trees the male and female catkins are on different trees. They flower May to June, with the fruit maturing in June. We get a false sense of a late snowstorm as the catkins and their cottony seeds blow off the trees and put a white blanket on the ground. The catkins are a source of vitamin C and are edible but bitter. Probably better as a survival food. Or use the cottony fluff to stuff a blanket or pillow and enjoy the intoxicating aroma.
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.