What is a Red Spruce Tree?

This is a comprehensive look at the red spruce tree, what it looks like, its importance to wildlife, how it is used, how it reproduces, and where they usually grow.

This is a close look at the forest of red spruce trees during winter.

Picea Rubens

Red spruce trees are also commonly referred to as the yellow spruce, the West Virginia spruce, the eastern spruce, or the he-balsam spruce. They are a late-successional coniferous tree that grows very slowly. Coniferous trees possess cones and needles instead of flowers and leaves, and the foliage does not drop seasonally, making them evergreen.

These trees are very closely related to the black spruce tree, and they are the official provincial tree of Nova Scotia. Though they are slow-growing, they are impressively long-lived. If they are not subjected to disease or logging, they can live anywhere from 250-450 years old!

Red spruces are most well known for their use as a Christmas tree, though they have attractive wood that is a very popular choice for the manufacturing of high-quality acoustic guitars and violins. They are also an important source of food and habitat for animals in the winter months.

These amazing trees only occur at higher elevations and are a very important softwood member of northeastern forests. Coniferous forests are a very important part of the North American landscape.

Curious about other types of trees? Head on over to 101 Types of Trees! We also have more detailed descriptions of both White Spruce Trees and Black Spruce Trees for your interest!

What do Red Spruce Trees Look Like?

Root System

Spruce trees will most commonly grow shallow and laterally wide-spreading root systems. Though their root systems may develop differently depending on the growing location.

Based on the types of growing conditions that red spruces are subjected to, they are more likely to develop shallow and wide roots (plate root systems) because they are very easily damaged by windthrow.

They are also susceptible to acid rain, and will sometimes develop taproots in order to help combat this. This is a way in which they can access moisture reserves deep in the soil, so they are less exposed to the damages of acid rain.

Dimensions

Under optimal conditions, red spruce trees will grow up to 40 meters high, and trunk diameters of 24 inches. The most exceptionally large tree is 46 meters tall with a trunk diameter of 39 inches. Under less than optimal conditions, they will linger closer to heights of 18 meters.

Growth Pattern

Red spruce trees develop a rather narrow, and conical-shaped crown. Branches grow horizontally. The longest and most robust branches occur at the base of the tree, and slowly get thinner and shorter along the trunk, until it ends in a sharp point.

Bark

Red spruce bark is gray-brown on the surface layer, and it peels off in thin, scaly pieces. Underneath the surface layer, it reveals inner bark that is more of a red-brown color.

This is a close look at a bark of a red spruce tree.

Foliage

The leaves of the red spruce tree are needle-like. They are less than an inch long and are slightly curved with a sharp point. Needles have 4 sides (which are only noticeable under a magnifying glass) and they are attached to hairy twigs.

Red spruce needles are a yellow-green color and will remain a very similar color the entire length of their lives. They will remain on a tree anywhere between 3-6 years, where they will then fall off due to environmental changes.

This is a close look at the foliage and leaves of a red spruce tree.

How do Red Spruce Trees Reproduce?

Cones

Spruce trees are monoecious, meaning that both female cones and male cones will occur on the same tree. This does not mean that they are able to self-pollinate. This is usually avoided, to ensure that future trees have genetic diversity, which will make them a more resilient tree species.

Seed cones (ovule producing, female characteristics) are a glossy red/brown color. They are cylindrical in shape and have stiff scales. Scales will open upon maturity in order to receive pollen.

Pollen cones (pollen-producing, male characteristics) are the same color and shape. Spruce cones will produce pollen in the early spring, and the pollen is dispersed by wind.

This is a close look at a couple of young spruce tree cones.

Seeds

Once pollen is dispersed, the female cone will close its scales in order to germinate and produce seedlings. The seed cone will droop down once it is mature (usually in summer or early autumn), which will make for easier seed dispersal.

Seeds are tiny and black and are attached to a pale brown single wing, which will help the seeds populate farther reaching areas.

Sexual Maturity

Red spruce trees are considered as being very late bloomers, and will only start to produce cones after about 30 to 40 years of maturing. They produce productive seed crops every 3-8 years, with less productive crop years in between.

What Are Some Other Types of Spruce Tree?

Black Spruce (picea mariana

A full view of a mature black spruce tree.

Black spruce trees are native to many parts of the United States and Canada. They are the official provincial tree of Newfoundland and Labrador. They are a small species with upright branches and the smallest cones. They are commonly used for cultivars in parks and gardens.

Blue Spruce (picea pungens

A row of tall blue spruce trees at a garden.

Blue spruce trees are native to western North America, specifically in places like Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. They are also sometimes called green spruce or Colorado spruce. They are medium-sized with horizontal leaves, and the sharpest leaves.

Norway Spruce (picea abies

A collection of tall mature Norway Spruce trees at a field.

Norway spruce trees are native to northern, eastern, and central Europe. They have branches that hang down, and they have the largest cones of any of the tree species. They are commonly planted for their use of wood and as Christmas trees.

White Spruce (picea glauca

This is a close look at a white spruce tree.

White spruce trees are native to the coldest parts of North America. They are the slowest growing of any of the spruce species. They are used for pulpwood, in construction, and in Christmas tree farms.

Where do Red Spruce Trees Grow?

This is a look at a valley with a forest of spruce trees.

Red spruces are native to eastern North America. Their growing range in Canada exists from Nova Scotia to Quebec. In the United States, the growing range occurs from Vermont towards New England, North Carolina, and west to the Adirondack mountains and central Appalachia.

They are found either in pure spruce stands or in mixed hardwood forests. They commonly grow alongside eastern white pine, balsam fir, and black spruce trees.

Certain groves of red spruce exist in a distinct ecosystem that can only be found at the highest altitudes in the southern Appalachian mountains. There is a particularly impressive range that is found in the Canaan Valley of Virginia.

What are the Growing Conditions of Red Spruce Trees?

A mountain forest of spruce trees during sunset.

Soil

The red spruce tree will grow best in soil that is extremely well-drained, and it prefers sandy loam soil types.

Sun Exposure

Slightly unusual for conifers, the red spruce is a shade-tolerant tree species. It is more common for conifers to require sun exposure for the full day, as they do not go dormant in the winter. However, red spruces will usually exist in regions that experience warmer winters, and so they can tolerate less sun exposure.

What are the Damaging Agents to the Red Spruce?

This is a close look at a spruce tree pine cone during winter.

Spruce Invaders

Spruce trees have a common enemy, and that is the spruce beetle. An invasive species that is most prevalent in cold regions, they have destroyed upwards of 2,300,000 acres of spruce forests in Alaska alone.

They are also attacked by the spruce budworm, which is a parasitic insect. Though red spruces are less susceptible to this parasite than white spruce, they still experience significant damage.

Acid Rain

Spruce trees are particularly vulnerable to the effects of acid rain. Acid rain is largely due to climate change. Acid rain changes the chemical composition of soils and their nutrients. This toxic rain will decrease the amount of calcium in the soil, and increase the amount of aluminum.

This is damaging because calcium is very important for spruce trees for physiological processes. These processes are helpful for their cold tolerance, disease resistance, signal transduction, and cell wall synthesis.

Calcium is also a very useful resource for the red spruce population to engage in dark respiration, wherein they are able to still respirate and photosynthesize once the sun has set. Aluminum also interferes with the roots’ ability to absorb nutrients.

How is Red Spruce Trees Used?

Wood

This is a close look at a bunch of spruce tree wood logs.

Red spruce wood is straight-grained with a fine and even texture. The heartwood is a creamy white color with hints of yellow and red. The wood is easily workable as long as no knots are present, which is not particularly common.

Spruce wood is used specifically for construction lumber, crate making, and for paper pulp. It is also an excellent tonewood, meaning that they have excellent resonant qualities are used to manufacture high-quality guitars and violins.

Culinary

The spruce tree was originally used to flavor “spruce pudding”, which is a traditional Christmas dessert. Spruce needles are also used to flavor spruce beer!

There is also something extracted from spruce trees called resin. This is marketed as spruce gum. Spruce gum has traditionally been used for medicinal purposes to help treat coughs.

Ornamental

When they aren’t being used as ornamental trees for landscaping, gardens, and parks, red spruces are also a popular choice of Christmas tree. They are quite slow-growing, and so they are not as popular as balsam fir trees for Christmas trees.

Wildlife

This is a bald eagle perched on top of a spruce tree.

Squirrels, birds, and other small mammal species heavily browse red spruce seeds. The red spruce forest also makes for an important habitat for small animals, and for moose and deer to help protect them from deep snow.

FAQs

Is the red spruce part of nature conservancy?

Because spruce trees are subjected to attack by various spruce pests, including spruce budworm, spruce beetles, yellow head spruce sawfly, and spruce bud moth, the nature conservancy has labelled the red spruce as being a protected species.

How fast do red spruce trees grow?

Red spruce growth is very slow for the first period of their lives. They will usually grow less than 12 inches within a year, though that rate will slightly quicken later on in their lives once they have a firmly developed root system. The growth rate will then slow down again once they reach maturity.

How long do red spruce trees live?

Red spruce trees are very long-lived trees. They have an average life expectancy of up to 250-450 years! This is all dependent if they are damaged by insects or if they are logged before then. Either way, they have the potential to be a proud member of the old-growth forest.

How tall do red spruce tree get?

Under optimal conditions, red spruce trees will grow up to 40 meters high, and trunk diameters of 24 inches. The most exceptionally large tree is 46 meters tall with a trunk diameter of 39 inches. Under less than optimal conditions, they will linger closer to heights of 18 meters.

How do you identify a red spruce tree?

The easiest way to differentiate a red spruce tree from other spruces, is through its bark. The bark of the red spruce tree is gray-brown on the surface layer, and it peels off in thin, scaly pieces. Underneath the surface layer it revels inner bark that is more of a red-brown color.

Are spruce trees softwood or hardwood?

Red spruce wood is considered as a softwood tree.

Is a spruce tree a pine tree?

Spruce trees are not pine trees, though they are easily mistakable for one another. The easiest way to differentiate the two, is through the way that their needles grow. Pine trees grow needles in close clusters on a stem, whereas spruce trees have needles that grow directly from a stalk.

Do deer eat Norway spruce trees?

Though they are not entirely deer resistant, Norway spruce trees are usually avoided by deer, unless they are absolutely desperate for a winter snack.

What is the difference between a white spruce and a red spruce?

Though closely related, white spruce trees and red spruce trees do have some significant differences in physical characteristics.

Red spruces have smaller cones, yellow-green foliage, and pubescent young twigs. White spruces have longer cones, blue/green foliage, and hairless twigs.

What is the difference between a red spruce and a black spruce?

Black spruces are the tallest, and most wet tolerant of all the spruce species. They have characteristically straight trunks, with very narrow crowns as well. Red spruce trees are much shorter with more broad crowns, and do not tolerate wet soils at all.

What animals live in spruce trees?

Many species of birds live in spruce trees. White-winged crossbills, red-breasted nuthatches, and chickadees just to name a few. There also many species that live in a spruce forest, these include red squirrels, snowshoe hares, owls, and woodpeckers.

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