Every morning, I trudge up the trail from the Placentia beach up to Castle Hill, a National Historic Site owned and operated by Parks Canada. It was a fortress, Fort Royale being the main fort, that was built by the French in 1693 when they owned this little bit of real estate. The trail, itself, was used by the beleaguered soldiers to transport the needs of the fort—cannons, cannon balls and so on.
I walk up the rocky path that leads towards a stairway. It traverses a stream that, dependent on the weather, will either be largely dry or positively gushing following a rainfall. Alongside the stairway is a Black spruce tree where I always pause. It’s fairly tall, around 7 m. Covered in rough bark, it bears little sign of any branches, in part because any ones obscuring the stair would’ve been cut.
A Rich Aroma
The primary reason I pause is to take a moment to breathe in deeply the lovely aroma of the sap accumulated on its trunk. It’s intoxicating. In times past, people working in the woods used to chew it as a gum. A friend of mind told me it’s called “frankum,” a Newfoundland term derived from Frankincense. But the resin wasn’t only a part of everyday life. For First Nations people, the resin was also powdered and placed on wounds in order to speed the healing process. For the Pima people living in the southwestern portion of the United States, Black spruce occupied a deep part of their mythology.1 We learn of how the father and mother of the Pima people actually survived the flooding waters by floating on a ball of Black spruce pitch. How’s that for ingenuity? But this is only one of the attributes that make the Black spruce one of the jewels of the forest.
To the scientifically minded, the Black spruce is officially known as Picea Mariana, with the Picea deriving from the Latin word Pix, which means pitch. Pitch is the dark coloured resin that was once used to caulk ships. The Mariana refers to “of Maryland.”2 It’s actually part of the Pinaceae family, the other main members being pines, firs, cedars, hemlocks, larches. Part of the Taiga or Boreal forest which encircles the globe, including the United States, Canada, Greenland, Russia, and everywhere in between, the area over which the Black spruce ranges is large. It extends from Massachusetts to northern Labrador on the Atlantic and west across Canada to west coast of Alaska and south to Wisconsin, southern Minnesota and southern Manitoba.
The Black spruce is a strong and sturdy tree. It can withstand considerably low temperatures. It’s mean annual temperature range extends from 7°C (45°F) in southern regions to -11°C(13°F) in northwestern Canada. But it’s average January temperatures are far lower, from -30°C(-22° F) to -6°C(21°F) at the southeastern edge of its range. The annual precipitation where Black spruce grow diminishes from east to west with a potential high in the Atlantic provinces of 1,520 mm (60 in) to 150 mm (6 in) in western Alaska. The annual precipitation ranges from 380 to 760 mm (30 to 30 in) in most of the black spruce range.
Black spruce trees are among a number of conifers that are capable of growing in what would seem the most inhospitable locations. Tenaciously clinging to cliffs or gallantly growing from the tops of rocks with the barest of moss for support, the Black spruce will be resolute. They prefer to grow in wet organic soils. Although, they can be found in variety of soil types from deep humus through to clays, loams, sands, coarse till, boulder pavements and shallow soil mantles over bedrock. With this said, Black spruce are most productive in dark brown to blackish peats.
Black spruce are also monoecious (i.e. they have unisexual reproductive organs or flowers, with the organs or flowers of both sexes borne on a single plant). Known as gymnosperms meaning “naked seed,” the Black spruce customarily produces erect, cylindrical, and green or purplish, the female flowers (ovulate strobili or cones) that appear in the upper meter of the crown. Meanwhile, ovate shaped male flowers (staminate strobili or cones) range in sizes from 12 to 20 mm (0.5 to 0.8 in) grow on the outer branches of the crown, just below the zone of female flowers.
The cones are capable of remaining on a tree for several years. Black spruce are also considered to be serotinous, meaning that over time, the cones will open slowly, but with a wildfire, will do so quite rapidly. So, out of devastation will rise a new beginning. The seeds that fall from a cone are also viable for many years. The miniscule winged seeds flitter to the ground where they germinate and grow. And they really do grow. Black spruce can grow up to 40 metres and live for a respectable 1,000 years.
In Ancient Times
The reproductive facet of the Black spruce tree was also hailed and hallowed by many in the past. In ancient Egypt, it was considered the tree of nativity while in Greece, the Black spruce was sacred to Artemis, the lunar goddess of birth. The Gauls regarded the Black spruce tree in association with the goddess of the new moon, called Kaineides, which meant “to bring new things.”
Its association with “new things” and birth meant that to the people of northern Asia, it was a cosmic tree. In Europe, the people would erect a Black spruce tree as a maypole, intertwined with wreathes of flowers, all to symbolise the Goddess.
The pagan world also linked the Black spruce with the sun. During winter solstice, it was decorated with all sorts of sweets, fruits, gifts and candles. Later in a Christionised world, this was replicated to eventually become the Christmas tree we all know and love.
The Black spruce is full of surprises. It is even commonly used as an essential oil for the purposes of soothing therapeutic respiratory troubles, for anti-inflammatory difficulties, as well as to ease and to improve overall skin health.
The Black spruce is a multifaceted and in countless ways, reaches into our spirits, strengthening, enlightening and enriching us. It is indeed the Black spruce, along with the balsam firs, we refer to as tuckamores, those trees that exhibit the fortitude, perseverance and determination we all strive to emulate. With true deference, we must recognise the value and merit of this humble tree quietly and solemnly takes up its proud place in our beloved boreal forest.
1Although one is never certain, but this suggests that the origin of this myth came from a time when Black spruce once grew in the region where the Pima people lived. Their primary region was the American southwest desert regions in southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico of the United States. This is currently outside of the range for the Black spruce.
2Apparently in the 18th century, botanists thought Maryland covered much more territory than it does today, hence the name.