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Plants I’m fond of: Black spruce (Picea mariana) November 25, 2012

Posted by Jenny in nature, plants, White Mountains.
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Black spruce forest in Alaska

When I maintained a section of the Carter-Moriah trail in the White Mountains, I always looked out, as I climbed, for the place where I would see my first black spruce. After passing through a forest of northern hardwoods and red spruce, I would emerge into a clearing below Mt. Surprise that offered views over to the Presidential Range and the great bald dome of Mt. Washington. On these rocky ledges with tufts of moss, lowbush blueberry, and sheep laurel, I was always able to spot a few small black spruce peeping out from under larger trees.

Black spruce were the visitors from the north, the vast boreal forests.

Range of black spruce

The map indicates that the range extends across Massachusetts, but in the years I lived there, I only saw a few isolated specimens in acid bogs—the only environment they care for besides northern latitudes and high elevations.

Traveling north from the black spruce outpost of the Carter-Moriah range, I could see many more of these trees along the crest of the Mahoosucs, coming into their own as the climate turned harsher. Their stiff needles were readily sculpted into strange shapes by the wind. They flopped, they leaned, they sent out long branches at ground level. The Wikipedia article describes it as having a “scruffy habit.”

And it’s true, this is not the sort of tree you would choose as the centerpiece of your front lawn. It is decidedly undignified in its appearance. A dwarf form is sometimes used as an ornamental, but for a full-sized tree, landscapers prefer Norway spruce or Colorado blue. Yet black spruce is quite attractive when you look at it up close. Its small, delicate needles have a bluish cast more subtle than the garish turquoise shade of the hybridized Colorado. The cones are the smallest belonging to any spruce, growing in a crown of glossy, purplish-brown bundles toward the top of the tree, in the shape of miniature Christmas tree ornamentsĀ  (see photo at bottom). The cones sport a tidy fish-scale pattern.

In the arctic regions, the heaving of permafrost as it freezes and thaws sends these trees and other boreal species tilting and sprawling at angles far from a true vertical. This is called a “drunken forest.” I like to think of these slow, vast upheavals, seismic in their effect.

This is larch, not black spruce, but it gives you the idea. This was taken in Siberia.

Where I live now in western North Carolina, there are no black spruce and I am close to the very southernmost border of the red spruce range. If the Smokies were only a couple of thousand feet higher, I imagine I might find spruce sculpted into stunted krummholz shapes near treeline—and maybe a few black spruce mixed in with the reds, if they could miraculously make the leap across the miles.

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