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-
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.