A version of this article appeared in the Westmount Independent, December 16, 2015
One has to admit, there was a spectacular display of autumn colours in Westmount Park. Now that the leaves have fallen, we enter a period where most of us begin to experience a sense of outdoor colour deprivation. As such, we develop a greater awareness of the various green conifers that grace the park.
For instance, have you ever wondered if the conifer you are looking at is a pine, spruce or fir? There is a simple way to differentiate between these three families. (Of course, there are always exceptions). Pines have long slender needles in bundles of two to five. In spruces, the needles are short, sharp and four-sided. Firs have short, blunt and flat needles and attached by short stalks to the twigs.
There is a beautiful stand of Norway Spruces (Picea abies) adjacent to the park’s gazebo. The species is used extensively in Europe as Christmas decorations. Looking closely, one can tell it’s a spruce with its single, sharp, four-sided needles. The type of spruce is simple to identify: Norway Spruces are unique in that the tree’s cones are downward facing and their branches droop towards the ground allowing the tree to shed its winter snow. Although commonly named “evergreens”, the needles are eventually shed – although this might occur once every 10 years.
In the 1800s, resin was collected from these trees to manufacture spruce gum. It was widely sold as a long lasting, “woodsy flavoured”, purplish chewing gum. Children living in the country would obtain their gum directly from hardened resin on the tree’s trunk. Once collected, the resin is boiled and allowed to cool before being broken into bite-sized pieces and dusted with corn starch.
In addition, the tree’s branches and needles, when boiled with water and molasses, comprise the basis of an excellent spruce beer.
Interestingly, Norway Spruces possess the ability to regenerate their trucks. Specifically, the tree’s trunk can have a lifespan of up to 600 years; however, when it finally dies a new one is propagated from the roots. In fact, the world’s oldest known tree is a Norway Spruce located in central Sweden’s mountainous Dalarna Province – it contains a root system that has been growing for 9,550 years!