Story last updated at 10/16/2013 - 7:20 pm
Talk about getting all spruced up! Southeast Alaska's spectacular forests dazzle viewers year round with their verdant splendor and Alaska's state tree, the majestic Sitka spruce, largest of all the spruce species, stands out among the cedar, hemlock, and alder with its dark green needles and towering prominence.
The most ambitious Sitka spruce may attain heights exceeding 225 feet with eight feet or more in diameter. These prodigious trees have impressively been kicking around for 500 years or more, some reportedly exceeding 800 years. The larger ones are incredible to behold and their abundance in Alaska's coastal forests yield multifarious benefits.
In his fascinating book, The Tree, Colin Tudge, fellow of the Linnean Society of London and impassioned champion of trees, counsels that a tree's life is not as easy as it may seem. From germination to final demise, trees compete every second for water, nutrients, light, and space while countering effects of cold, drought, flood, toxicity, parasites, and predators. "From a tree's point of view," Tudge observes, "Squirrels or giraffes are 'predators'."
At the same time, trees, simply by existing, create niches for a multitude of other plants and animals to live in and on. Sitka spruce forests in various stages of succession provide habitat, some critical, for a large variety of forest dwellers.
Sitka black-tailed deer find shelter inside old growth forests, which provide thermal cover and keep out much of the snow, allowing easier access to the understory. The deer move between large blocks of old growth forest from sea level to alpine as they move among summer and winter ranges.
If you think spruce trees are for the birds, they are but in a good way. Nine of 10 bald eagles surveyed chose Sitka spruce over other leading trees for nesting and roosting. Cavity nesters take advantage of snags or trees with broken tops.
Sitka spruce grows best in deep, moist, well-drained soil from sea level to timberline in Alaska, tolerating the salty ocean spray. Both a pioneer and climax species in coastal areas, they colonize soil after landslides, on uplifted beaches, and in glacial moraines. According to a U.S. Forest Service website, Sitka spruce are protruding through the Juneau Icefield from rocky peaks and have also aggressively regenerated on uplifted terrain after the 1964 earthquake.
An important timber species in Alaska, Sitka spruce wood has a high strength to weight ratio and is moderately lightweight, soft, and evenly textured with an unusually straight grain. The outer sapwood is nearly white while inner heartwood appears light reddish brown. Large, clear trunks with excellent resonant qualities and uniformity are valued for sounding boards in pianos, guitars and other instruments.
Sitka spruce has been utilized in the production of airplanes, boats, lumber, oars, ladders, packing crates for salmon and much more. It also produces the best wood pulp on the Pacific coast - used for newsprint.
Resourceful humans for generations have made creative use of Sitka spruce by weaving hats and baskets from roots, flavoring tea, jelly, syrup and beer from spruce tips, and using pitch for chewing gum and caulking canoes. Chopped spruce branches, I am told, boiled and strained, make a lovely addition to a relaxing bath.
I love Sitka spruce trees so much I want to just go hug them all. Unfortunately, when I tried that, it was rather painful. The needles are sharp. They're not cuddly but I have to think they know what they are doing.
Happy Alaska Day and if you get a chance, look around - if you're in Southeast Alaska, you probably won't have to look far to spot our state tree.
Carla Petersen writes from Thorne Bay. She is a freelance writer and artist. Visit her website at whalepassoriginals.com or she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.