The truth about spruce

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I came across this article on the internet years ago. I don't know who wrote it and neither do I know if 'the truth' is actually true. But nevertheless, it is an interesting read...


 

Here is more than you perhaps ever cared to know about European spruce ... or what to think when someone proclaims they have a top of German (or Italian, or Swiss, or French, or Jugoslavian or Italian) spruce.

My little search for 'The truth about spruce' has been ongoing for many years, but recently took a turn when someone insisted that Picea abies and Picea excelsa were two names for the same species. I had always understood they were separate, as the woods associated with the two names were certainly (I thought) quite different. I got busy with the web, some books and spoke at length with a couple of experts. I have a better idea of what's what now, and here's what I found out.

First of all, the guy who lumped them together was right and I was out of date.

These are the three ranges of Picea abies, a tree commonly known in the US as Norway spruce.

Spruce tree distribution
The three ranges of Picea abies

As with most spruces, these trees naturally and historically live in mountains and cold places. The white line separating the two lower ranges marks the high elevations of the Alps where icebergs grow. The most southerly of the three ranges in this map lies in France, Switzerland, Italy and a bit of Austria and Slovenia (the south face of the Alps).

Spruce branch
 

The spruces of the lower range (dark green) were until recently taxonomically classified as Picea excelsa. Picea excelsa has now been folded together with Picea abies as a single species. The trees in the lower range are still classified by some botanists as a subspecies called Picea abies excelsa. It is debatable if this is a wise designation, as it's highly likely that the only thing distinguishing this so-called subspecies is how it grows in that environment. A propos, this is the range from which the Cremonese master violinmakers and the lutherie elite of Europe has historically gotten their wood.

The middle light-green range on the north slope of the Alps and across southern Germany and east into Poland and Czechoslovakia contains Picea abies, most of which has been reintroduced since 1800. Because of the thorough exploitation and devastation of the forests through the end of the 18th century and the enormous timber demand in early industrial times, the natural forests were eliminated and eventually reborn as artificial forests. The seed stock for the reintroduced Picea abies came from the Scandinavian range (gray-green) at the top of the map.

Today Picea abies comprises 35% of the tree cover in Germany, and most of that is in managed forests. Among the other major conifers in German forests are Picea glauca, an American import, and Douglas fir, another American import. These trees have been grown in Germany for a very long time (see below). It is an irony that over the last fifty years or so, forest management in Germany has increased forest size considerably (in stark contrast to the rest of the world) but its air pollution is so extreme that the forests are very unhealthy and the yield from that acreage is decreasing. Picea abies is acutely vulnerable to the pollution problems, notably acid rain.

Spruce trees
Spruce found in Germany nowadays

Moreover, if you have ever spent time talking wood with instrument makers in Germany, they will chuckle and tell you they consider "German spruce" not just a misnomer but an unlikelihood. They generally get their spruce from farther south, in Italy, Slovenia, Switzerland or France. This has always been the source of the best lutherie spruce. As Horst Grünert, a very fine bass and cello maker in Penzberg, Bavaria, once told me, he'd cheerfully go out with his chainsaw and get the rare spruce in Germany if he could find it, but he said that for all intents and purposes, it had been extinct in Germany for several centuries (again, see below). The spruce I was seeing all over the Alps was, he said, good for fence posts and pulp, and that's what it was farmed for. I never saw trees larger than about eight inches either. That's them in the photo.

In conclusion:
German spruce - probably not. Dealers in Germany sell lots of good spruce, but it's seldom if ever from trees harvested on German soil.
Italian, Swiss, French, Jugoslavian and Italian spruce - yes, especially if it's Picea abies or Picea excelsa, which it probably is. Slovakia is the part of the former Jugoslavia where this spruce is found.

PS: Intercontinental trade in forest seed was established in the early 1700s, when seed of several eastern American species (yellow locust being a big one) were frequently shipped to Europe, mainly for use in ornamental plantations. Regular forest plantations of Picea glauca (white spruce), Pinus strobus (eastern white pine), and a few other American conifers were, however, also raised shortly after 1700 in Europe. The first seed samples of northwestern American species, including Douglas fir and Sitka spruce, were sent to Europe about 1825 by the famous botanical explorer, David Douglas.

Trade on a substantial scale in these species, however, did not begin until after the opening of the Pacific Railroad in 1869. The center of the trade in those days was San Francisco, where seed from the northwest was shipped by boat and thence east by train to dealers on the Atlantic coast, or direct to customers in Europe. Darmstadt in Germany was the other end of the pipeline in this trade.

Spruce branch
 

Bearing in mind that Picea glauca was introduced into Europe about 1700 from America and mainly used in shelterbelt plantings, it may be mentioned, merely as a curious fact, that seed of this species has been exported in considerable quantities from Europe (Denmark) to Canada during the last decades. Even seed of such American species as Sitka spruce and western red cedar (both, however, of selected origin) have recently been exported from Denmark to American dealers. This is indeed an improved forest seed version of "carrying coals to Newcastle."

German spruce sold to the lutherie world is largely spruce sold by German dealers, and tends to come from a variety of sources, including a large amount imported from the US and Canada. Engelmann spruce, for example, is very popular among luthiers and for decades has been exported to Europe where it has been sold back to Americans as, you guessed it, German spruce. Whatever works, man.

It is probably safest to just call it European spruce.

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