Trees of the Adirondacks:
Red Spruce (Picea rubens)

Trees of the Adirondacks: Red Spruce on the Barnum Brook Trail (28 July 2012).
Trees of the Adirondacks:  Red Spruce needles are short, four-sided, and unfriendly to the touch. Red Spruce on the Barnum Brook Trail (28 July 2012).

The Red Spruce (Picea rubens) is a medium-sized evergreen conifer that grows in cool, boreal forests of the northeast, including the Adirondack Mountains. This species is the conifer species most typical of the Adirondack region as a whole. Early records suggest that the Red Spruce constituted a quarter of the forest cover in the northern Adirondacks at one time.

This species is a member of the pine family. This tree is also known as Yellow Spruce, West Virginia Spruce, Eastern Spruce, and He Balsam. The latter name is to distinguish the Red Spruce from the southern-growing Fraser Fir, which is known as "She Balsam. Red Spruce is the provincial tree of Nova Scotia.


Identification of the Red Spruce

Trees of the Adirondack Park:  Red Spruce on the Barnum Brook Trail (21 July 2012).
Trees of the Adirondacks: The bark of Red Spruce trees is gray-brown to reddish-brown and furrowed on larger trees. Red Spruce on the Barnum Brook Trail (21 July 2012).

Red Spruce trees have four-sided, short,yellowish green needles on woody pegs. The cones, which fall soon after maturity, are around 1.5 inches long. They hang pendantly and are reddish-brown and woody. The slender new twigs have a reddish coat of down through the first year. The bark of Red Spruce trees is gray-brown to reddish brown.

This species flowers in May. The pendant male flowers are bright red, while the female flowers are erect and bright green tinged with purpleIn growth habit, this tree is rather open-branched, with up-curved tips.

Keys to identifying the Red Spruce and differentiating it from other coniferous trees include its needles, bark, growth habit, and habitat.

  • Red Spruce trees are easily distinguished from Eastern White Pine, since the latter tree has much longer needles in bundles, while the needles of the Red Spruce grow individually on the twig.
  • Red Spruce needles can also be differentiated from those of the Balsam Fir, which are also short. Balsam Fir needles, particularly those on lower branches, appear to be two-ranked. The needles appear to occupy a single horizontal plane and are soft and friendly to the touch. Red Spruce needles, by contrast, are sharp-pointed and prickly, growing all around the twig. Moreover, Red Spruce needles are four sided, in contrast to the flat needles of the Balsam Fir. Finally, the cones of Red Spruce are orange-brown, contrasting with the bluish brown cones of the Balsam Fir. The bark is another key identifier, since Red Spruce bark lacks the resin blisters of the Balsam Fir.
  • The needle arrangement of Red Spruce also differentiates it from that of Eastern Hemlock, which appear to occupy a single horizontal plane.
  • The arrangement of Red Spruce needles also contrasts with that of Tamaracks. Tamarack needles are relatively short, like those of the Red Spruce, but are produced in clusters of ten to twenty, as opposed to the single needles of the Red Spruce. Moreover, Tamaracks thrive in much wetter soil than Red Spruce.
  • Red Spruce can be distinguished from Black Spruce by its growth habit and habitat. The silhouette of a Red Spruce tree is pyramidal. By contrast, Black Spruce trees are slender, with short branches. Moreover, Black Spruce trees thrive in the middle of bogs, where Red Spruce does not grow.

Differentiating Red Spruce from White Spruce is somewhat trickier.

  • The needles of Red Spruce are yellowish green, in contrast to the bluish green needles of the White Spruce. Moreover, the needles of the Red Spruce exude a fruity scent similar to that of orange rind when crushed. By contrast, the needles of the White Spruce (sometimes known as the Cat Spruce or Skunk Spruce) exude a pungent odor evocative of cat urine or skunk when crushed.
  • The cones of the Red Spruce are somewhat smaller than those of White Spruce.
  • Red Spruce tends to be more open-branched than White Spruce.

Uses of the Red Spruce

Red Spruce is one of the most important forest trees in the northeast. The wood is light, soft, and faintly tinged with red. This tree is used primarily for lumber and pulpwood. It is also used for construction lumber, plywood, boxes, sash frames, and musical stringed instruments. It is the preferred wood for piano sounding boards, guitars, mandolins, organ pipes, and violin bellies. It is also used as a Christmas tree. One unique use of red spruce was spruce gum.

This plant is not widely used medicinally. However, several North American Indian tribes employed it as a remedy for throat ailments, lung trouble, and measles; the needles were also used to make a beverage and the gum to make pitch. Native people also used the peeled roots of Red Spruce for lacing. Early settlers used the fresh green buds to flavor beers. 

Wildlife Value of the Red Spruce

Birds of the Adirondack Park: Red-breasted Nuthatch at the VIC (17 May 2014).
Birds of the Adirondacks: Red Spruce are commonly found in the breeding habitat of Red-breasted Nuthatches. Red-breasted Nuthatch at the VIC (17 May 2014).

Red Spruce provides food and cover for various mammals and birds. Habitats which include Red Spruce are particularly important as winter cover for White-tailed Deer and, to a certain extent, Moose.  Red Squirrels eat buds and seeds. Mice and voles consume and store significant amounts of spruce seeds. North American Porcupines feed on the bark in winter.

Red Spruce provides food and nest sites for a number of birds. The Spruce Grouse feeds on the buds and foliage. Red spruce seeds reportedly make up 25 to 50 percent of the diet of White-winged CrossbillsBlack-throated Green Warblers and Pileated Woodpeckers also forage on Red Spruce trees.

The Red Spruce is a common tree species in the breeding habitat of a wide variety of birds, including:

Distribution of the Red Spruce

The range of this species is more limited than those of the Black SpruceTamarack, or Balsam Fir. The range of the Red Spruce extends only from the Maritime Provinces of Canada  west to Maine, southern Quebec, and southeastern Ontario, and south into central New York, eastern Pennsylvania, northern New Jersey, and Massachusetts. There are also stands of Red Spruce in parts of the Appalachian Mountains.

In New York State, Red Spruce trees are found primarily in the northern and eastern parts of the state, including the Adirondack Mountains and the Catskills. Within the Adirondack Park, Red Spruce trees are found in all counties within the Blue Line.

Habitat of the Red Spruce

Red Spruce trees grow in climates with cool, moist summers and cold winters. Most of the soils on which Red Spruce occurs are developed from glacial deposits. This species is very high on the scale of shade tolerance. It will grow slowly in the shady understory for many decade, poised to take advantage of any opening in the canopy, then grow rapidly to a canopy position. It is generally considered a climax species.

Red Spruce can grow in a variety of soils. It prefers well-drained soils, but can also grow in moister soils. It does not grow in the middle of bogs, but can be found on swampy ground. In the Adirondack region, Red Spruce can be found in a wide variety of ecological communities:

In the Adirondacks, you can find Red Spruce scattered in the Northern Hardwoods Forest below 2500 feet in elevation, but it is most common on sites where Sugar Maple and American Beech cannot grow well, where the soils are either too sandy or too wet or near rock outcrops.

Birds of the Adirondack Park:  White-throated Sparrow in a Red Spruce tree on the Barnum Brook Trail at the Paul Smiths VIC (6 October 2014).
Birds of the Adirondacks: Red Spruce are present in the breeding habitat of White-throated Sparrows. White-throated Sparrow in a Red Spruce tree on the Barnum Brook Trail at the Paul Smiths VIC (6 October 2014).

Red Spruce can frequently be found in the Spruce-Northern Hardwood Forest – a mixed forest which is one of the most common forest types in the Adirondacks.

Prospects for the Red Spruce in the Adirondack Park

This species is vulnerable to damage from acid rain. Although acid rain – the result of pollutants in the emissions from power plants and other industrial facilities – has stressed Adirondack forests as a whole, two species have experienced particularly heavy losses: Red Spruce and Sugar Maple.

In regard to the Red Spruce, acid rain leaches calcium out of the needles and reduces the needles' ability to tolerate freezing temperatures. Acid rain also interferes with the tree's ability to acquire nutrients from the thin Adirondack soils. This combination of reduced freeze tolerance and nutrient stress, which makes the trees more susceptible to insects and disease, is thought to be responsible for the loss of roughly half of the high-altitude spruce forests in the Adirondacks.

Adirondack Tree List


References

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Trees of the Adirondack Mountains

Copyright 2017