Friday, December 7, 2012

Did You Know? ...About Spruce Trees

by Jim Northrop
For many American homes, the centerpiece of Christmas decoration is the Christmas tree, often a spruce tree, cut locally. Year-round, spruces are trees ornamentally popular with landscapers. They are admired for their all-seasons green color, and their tidy symmetrical growth profile. They have dense branches, but they are easy to decorate.
We should know that the spruce tree has more talents than just looking pretty. Spruce is very useful as a construction wood. It has many uses as lumber, ranging from general construction work, to crates, to highly specialized uses in wooden aircraft and as a "tonewood" in many musical instruments (including guitars, mandolins, cellos, violins and the soundboard at the heart of a piano, and the harp. The Wright Brothers' first aircraft was built of spruce.
Spruce is one of the most important woods for paper making, as it has long wooden fibers which bind together to make strong paper. Spruces are commonly used in mechanical pulping as they are easily bleached. Spruces are cultivated over large areas as pulpwood.
Interestingly, the fresh shoots of many spruces are a natural source of vitamin C. Captain Cook made alcoholic sugar-based spruce beer during his sea voyages in order to prevent scurvy in his crew. The leaves and branches, or the essential oils, can be used to brew spruce beer.
Native Americans in New England took the sap to make a gum which was used for various purposes, and which was the basis of the first commercial production of chewing gum. Also, the resin of spruce trees was used in the manufacture of pitch, at least until petrochemicals were found to be better for this purpose.
We have many varieties of spruce trees in the Great Swamp Watershed. Sadly, many of them were damaged or destroyed recently by Hurricane Sandy. The root systems of spruce trees are often quite shallow, making them quite susceptible to high winds. Their graceful presences will be missed for a long time, as it will take decades for new growth to fully replace them.

Editor's note: Some spruce trees, like the Norway spruce (Picea abies), were introduced to North America from Europe, and are now considered invasive species. As they invade an area, the Norway creates a new habitat that few native plants can tolerate. The soil surrounding stand of Norway spruce often becomes acidic and devoid of many important nutrients. Shade canopy also becomes very dense, preventing light from reaching native plants close to the forest floor.

Thankfully, homeowners and landscapers can avoid perpetuating the spread of invasive spruces by choosing to plant native spruce species instead. The red spruce (Picea rubens) is one of these native species. Its natural range stretches from the Canadian Maritimes through the Appalachian Mountains to western North Carolina. The red spruce thrives on moist, sandy loam, and also on dry rocky slopes. These trees can reach heights of 60 to 80 ft.

Volunteer Use Thanksgiving Weekend to Give Back to GSWA

by Hazel England, Land Steward and Director of Education and Outreach, GSWA
Some came to connect with family and give back to the watershed by working together.  Some came to catch a break from family after the long Thanksgiving holiday; others because they are longtime members and volunteers, or because they were offered extra credit by savvy Environmental Science high school teachers.  Some even came for the coffee, hot chocolate, and donuts!  Whatever reason, a lot of volunteers  turned out on Sunday, November 25 for an outdoor workday at the Great Swamp Watershed Association’s Conservation Management Area.
Once again our volunteers re-created a one-mile trail first laid out in early 2011.  It’s been repaired three times now; once after Hurricane Irene flooding devastated it, again after the losses from the 2011 Halloween snowstorm blocked it, and now following Superstorm Sandy.
More than 30 adults, teenagers, and kids spent a cold Sunday working in crews.  Each crew was headed by a chainsaw expert, and included some strong muscles for moving large chain-sawed logs.  The rest of each team was composed of support workers who raked trails free of downed sticks, branches, and fallen leaves.    Many of the logs the crew cut up were used to edge and delineate our CMA trails, or piled to make giant brush piles which other volunteers will clear away at future workdays.
A few volunteer groups worked to remove felled trees from multiple points along the 7,500-foot deer fence that encloses 28 acres of the CMA.  Blow-downs from Sandy breached the seven-year-old fence in several places, and both temporary and permanent fence repairs were required after much of the wood was removed.  Some truly giant trees subsumed stretches of fence more than thirty feet long.  In these spots, where volunteers could not venutre and the fence remains pinned to the ground, hungry deer now have free reign to decimate all of the protected native vegetation GSWA has been trying to restore.  Scores of fresh hoof prints inside our fence perimeter testify to this particular problem.
There were a few other places where our ruined fence could only be pulled up off the ground and onto temporary supports.  GSWA will need an emergency infusion of cash to purchase new permanent support posts, and entirely new fencing that is not riddled with large, deer-sized holes.
Many of our most faithful volunteers showed up to work.  There were also many new faces joining us thanks to a last-minute appeal for volunteers distributed by local media outlets.  Regulars and first-timers worked side by side, and it was truly humbling for me as GSWA’s land manager to see so many people giving back to an open-space property that serves so many local communities.
Now that much of the damage wrought by Superstorm Sandy has been repaired, we hope that you and many others will visit and take a walk along our newly restored and opened trail system.  As you stroll along, check out all the fresh sawdust—a clear sign of all the busy beavers who worked so hard Thanksgiving weekend to the benefit of all.  Words cannot express how grateful I am for all our committed volunteers!