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Climax Spruce

Balsam Poplar







Don't ever become a pessimist... a pessimist is correct oftener than an optimist, but an optimist has more fun, and neither can stop the march of events.
Robert A. Heinlein

Typical Pine

The edge were tree meets field creates a haven for all sorts of critters.

Spruce Crowns

Spruce Forest Floor

Two features of mature spruce forests: Very little undergrowth. Lots of dead branches. (Some here cleared off for my own access)

Climax Spruce

If left undisturbed for long enough this land will go to a solid forest of spruce. Spruce dominates. The needles make the soil acidic, and very little light comes through the forest canopy. Only in clearings can ground vegetation do well.

I fib a bit: We haven't quite got there yet. My spruce forest has a big poplar here and there, and has small clearings where balsams have come down in the last 20 years or so.

But it's thick enough that in winter there is seldom more than an inch or two of snow there, even on years when I've had to get the snowblower out four times to clear the driveway. (Blowing snow is one of my least favorite jobs. The blower and the wind conspire to drop at least a ton of it down my neck. I'm almost a corpsicle when I come back inside. So I avoid it until even the four wheel drive vehicles are struggling to get in and out.)

Woods Violet

This little violet will grow in a spruce wood given a small hole in the canopy. (It's in the clearing underneath the view of the sky at the top of the page.) It's closely related to the viola, pansy, and johny-jumpups we plant in our garden.

It's thick enough there that there is almost no undergrowth -- perhaps a raspberry or wild rose will make an attempt. A balsam poplar will poke up a sprout in balsam's eternal attempt at conquest. (Balsam poplars have a Napoleon complex. Today the meadow: Tomorrow the World!)

Spruce are good businessmen, and know to cut their losses. Branches in the shade die, drop all their needles, and become stiff and brittle.

Traveling through a young thick spruce grove is much like walking on the bottom of a pool of porcupines. Dead twigs claw at you every step of the way. Eventually some of the smaller trees get shaded out, and fall, opening up gaps in the thicket.

Woodpecker Dining spot

Several years ago I saw this hole at the base of this spruce. A pileated woodpecker had whacked it out to get at the carpenter ants that were working on the core. I expected the tree to die or blow over in a few years, but so far it continues to appear healthy.

Even when there is little action on the forest floor, all is not silent. Up, up in the sunlight there are a couple of tons of birds. (Exaggerate? Moi? Surely you jest! Ok... But lots and lots of birds) Nuthatches and creepers run up and down the trunks picking up little bugs. Downy and hairy woodpeckers go for the bigger ones.

We have another patch of thick spruce right by the house. On the south side of the clump the branches still come close to the ground. They get light.

I've set up a makeshift patio there with a couple of chairs, and one of those mosquito tents. Sometimes on a hot afternoon I knock off the field work at 3, Laura and I will laze away the rest of the afternoon in the heavy shade under the spruce, with a pitcher of Sangria, listening to the bugs buzz, and watching the chickadees in their endless quest for lunch.

We can even take our laptops out there, (it's within range of the wireless router), and pretend to work.

Spruce forest floor in winter

It's early March. In the fields there are 15 to 20 inches of snow. Here under the spruce canopy there is only an inch or so.


Bedstraw is another plant that only needs a little light. What is the difference between a spot covered with bedstraw versus one covered in violets. I seldom find them mixed.

The spruce forest is forever. Each time one falls, a new one will start. Oh, sometimes it will take 2-3 close together to fall and make enough light for a young one to grow. And while waiting there will be a spot of green filled with woods violets and bedstraw and lungwort, and the ever present raspberry.

The Lewis & Clarke expedition nearly died crossing western Montana and Idaho. In the climax forest there are birds, but no game. No grazing for horses. (I take a few liberites: Northern Idaho is not all spruce. But the effect is similar for fir, hemlock, and cedar forests.)

A spruce forest has climate changing power. Look at a spruce grove from a distance. It is nearly black. While a given needle is a dark green, any light that misses a needle has to bounce around a lot to get back out.

The net effect is that a spruce grove reflects less light back to space than a poplar grove. This makes the local climate warmer.

One of the feedback loops with global warming: As the arctic warms the treeline will move north. More spruce collect more heat. Which warms up the arctic even more.

Further: The snow that is caught on branches usually evaporates into the warmer air in the crown. The net effect of this on a big forest is to shift the water in the direction of the prevailing wind. So we may end up with lower average precipitation in the arctic in winter, and increased snowfall further south. Lower precipitation may mean that snow is gone earlier, and since snow reflects more light than grass or moss, arctic springs get warm earlier. More global warming.

The spruce forest is forever. Until lighting strikes...

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Sherwood's Forests is located about 75 km southwest of Edmonton, Alberta. Please refer to the map on our Contact page for directions.