Sitka Spruce: Alaska state tree is a prickly partner for many industries

Sitka spruce trees tower over a meadow in Southeast Alaska.

Sitka spruce trees tower over a meadow in Southeast Alaska.

Someone asked me this week why Alaska’s state tree could not be used for a Christmas tree. My answer: “Have you ever tried to carry one of those? Ouch!”

The Sitka spruce (or Picea sitchensis) is the tallest in the spruce family, and looks quite noble towering above its cousin the Black spruce in Southcentral and Interior Alaska. Reaching 100 meters, with thick, bottle-brush twigs and pokey needles, the Sitka spruce looks quite impressive, and it should, given the competition with other, equally-amazing trees found in Alaska.

Thriving in moist marine environments, I’ll bet you can guess where the Sitka spruce thrives. That’s right, Southeast Alaska and much of the northern part of the West Coast, including a good part of British Columbia. Enjoying mild winters and cool summers with plenty of rain, the Sitka spruce can be found just about everywhere, and has been an important tree for Alaska’s economy.

Strong, clear wood means Sitka spruce were used for building masts on sailing ships, and crates were fashioned from its malleable but enduring wood. Even the planks of pirates (arrrrgh~) were likely Sitka spruce; can’t have prisoners falling to their untimely demise because the plank broke, now, can we? The trees grow fast from their seedling stage, which helps the timber industry with forest regeneration after a harvest.

Sitka spruce are very important to the music industry, particularly keyboard and guitar, and craftsmen covet the beautiful tones produced by the wood.

 

Old Sitka spruce trees in Fort Abercrombie on Kodiak Island.

Old Sitka spruce trees in Fort Abercrombie on Kodiak Island.

Sitka National Historical Park is a great place to learn more about Alaska's state tree, and view totem poles.

Sitka National Historical Park is a great place to learn more about Alaska’s state tree, and view totem poles.

How can you tell a tree is a Sitka spruce? 

Bark: Sitka spruce bark is grayish-brown, but a signature feature is the scaly outer part that sloughs off now and then. Sometimes people refer to the bark of a Sitka spruce as looking like potato chips for the size and shape of the scales.

Branches: The branches of this spruce are flowing and full, with those prickly needles that hurt if you brush up against them. green and rich, the branches also produce softer tips in the spring months, which are used to make beer, spirits, tea, and even sprinkled in baked goods (just ask AK Dad, who swears that Kodiak Island’s spruce tips are the best).

A great place to visit and learn more about Alaska’s state tree is the city of Sitka, located on Baranof Island in Southeast Alaska. The Sitka National Historical Park has tons of great information about this beautiful tree, its value to Alaska, and some pretty amazing totem poles made from this amazing wood.

AK Dad picks spruce tips during a trip to Kodiak Island.

AK Dad picks spruce tips during a trip to Kodiak Island.

Posted in Kids' Corner and tagged , , , , , , .