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Group of Seven - Number Six - Black Spruce
by Dan Clost
by Dan Clost


First serious garden earned 25 cents from the Kemptville Horticultural Society when I was 12. Have been poor in horticulture ever since but rich in spirit.

Went to work writing the Good Earth column (over 500 articles published in newspaper, magazine, website and journal.) and learned that what was printed wasn't what I wanted to say and certainly not what Gentle Reader understood me to say. Subsequently have developed a certain clarity and economy of words.

Day job- nursery and production manager for a large nursery/garden centre
Side job- Garden restoration and renovations, design consultations, remedial pruning.
Night job- garden writer and communicator (overnight success in another 20 years)

Dan gardens in Canadian Zone 5b

October 19, 2008

Lawren Harris produced the oil on canvas Spruce and Snow in 1916. It is one of my favourites from this notable artist. In our continuing discovery of the Group of Seven Canadian Trees, black spruce now shares the number six spotlight. Unfortunately, I could not determine clearly which type of spruce Mr. Harris painted here. I'm guessing it is a black spruce, Picea mariana. (In the foreground the snow-covered trees do not exhibit their classical shape but the bare chappies in the rear ranks do.) The question here is, "Is that expanse of snow covering a meadow or a swamp?" If the latter, then I am comfortable with calling it a black spruce. White spruce, Picea glauca, might be a choice except the branches seem to have too much of a downward sweep even taking into account the snow burden. (With my luck, Mr. Harris, at that time, couldn't tell a spruce from a fir and we're actually looking at a balsam.) However A.Y. Jackson's Terre Sauvage of 1913 has a black spruce or two and Arthur Lismer’s' 1922 canvas, Forest, Algoma certainly does show a stand of black spruce with a pond in the foreground.

The black spruce, aka bog spruce, swamp spruce, stretches from coast to coast and up to the treeline. There's a few bits in the lower prairies and B.C. that don't benefit from this unassuming Canadian tree. In the lower ranges of its habitat you'll notice it in the wetlands, especially around sphagnum bogs. It does grow in drier areas and, further north, you'll even see it on slopes. Companion trees, in the northern ranges include other spruce, pines, birches and aspens. There will be pockets of pure stands but in fair competition, the neighbours will supplant the spruce. In wetter areas the primary companion is the tamarack.

In those damper sites, black spruce is considered a small tree with a height of 20 metres and diameter of 30 centimetres. Drier areas allow it to become a medium tree standing 30 metres tall with an increased girth of 60 centimetres. Our Ontario champion was measured by Doug Thain, the Tree Cutting By-Law Enforcement Officer for Bancroft ,at Loon Lake in Mitchell Township. As of 1984, it stretched upwards to 21 metres.

This tree has quite a distinctive shape. The lower branches are relatively short with a pronounced downward swoop giving the tree one half of its characteristic profile. The top is shaped like a club; the relatively bare expanse of trunk just below serves to accentuate this appearance. Farrar's Trees in Canada attribute this to red squirrels munching on the growing tips causing many shoots to arise from the damaged tissue. The folks at ForestCare lay the blame on the disease “eastern dwarf mistletoe“, which results in the witches broom.

The four sided needle is described as casting a dull bluish-green sheen with white dots along its underside. This doesn’t sound so glamorous, except that in its natural state, those needles combine to produce a marvellous depth of colour.

Black spruce reproduces two ways. The first is the traditional method of cones, opened up by a wild fire. The second is by layering. New trees will arise from exposed roots in wetter areas creating pure stands that are actually one widespread tree.

In the wetter areas, roots will start above the soil line and snake their way into the ground. First Nations Peoples would strip off the covering and use the sinewy strands to weave together birch bark sheets. In some instances, when the gummier white spruce wasn't available, the sap would be boiled to produce a patching resin for containers and the occasional hole in a leaky canoe.

Picea mariana, subject to availability, would be a good choice for damp areas. It’s natural relationship with tamarack, Tsuga canadensis, encourages the landscaper to combine the two for a native backdrop in large designs.

Black spruce is listed in few nursery catalogues excepting one of its cultivars ‘Ericoides’, also known as the blue nest spruce.

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