Spruce it up. That is what Islanders did when they planted spruce trees in their yards. Fairly common on the Island, spruce found its way here because of its usefulness and beauty. These conifers prefer more northern climes, thriving in boreal forests.
Perhaps that is why large-scale planting of this species in the State Forest did not produce the quality crop for which the Commonwealth’s foresters had hoped. In its native environs, spruce is a healthy tree that can be quite profitable, but few takers were found for commercial harvesting of the planted areas in the center of the Island.
Spruce’s pulp is valued for papermaking and its lumber is used in construction, for furniture and instrument making and, of course, whole trees for Christmas decorating. Traditional canoes were made from this wood, and its roots functioned as rope to lace those boats together.
But that isn’t all. To provide protective magic, one is advised to carry a green spruce twig next to the skin. Chewing its resinous buds was thought to cure toothaches.
However, this epicurean is far more intrigued by spruce’s culinary potential.
Young, male catkins can be eaten raw or cooked, and immature female cones roasted provide a sweet and syrupy center. Grinding the inner bark yields a powder that can be used as a thickener or added to grains for bread. Resin
from its trunk can be chewed like gum and oil can be extracted for flavoring. And spruce’s shoot tips and needles brew a tea that cures everything from tuberculosis to rheumatism.
Arguably, though, the best option is making beer. To prevent scurvy, Captain James Cook imbibed vitamin C-rich spruce spirits in 1784 during a voyage on the Pacific Ocean.
He describes life aboard the ship: “Two of our men were employed in brewing spruce beer; while others filled the water-casks, collected grass for the cattle and cut wood.... Besides fish, we had other refreshments in abundance. Scurvy-grass, celery and portable soup were boiled every day with the wheat and pease; and we had spruce beer for our drink. Such a regimen soon removed all seeds of the scurvy from our people, if any of them had contracted it. But indeed, on our arrival here, we only had two invalids in both ships.”
First, one must be able to positively identify this terrific tree. Often confused with firs, spruce can be differentiated in this memorable way: firs have flat needles and spruces have square needles — f for flat and fir, s for square and spruce.
Even with all of these benefits, a Scandinavian legend tells a different tale of the downfall of spruce. This story of original sin starts with the assertion that spruce was the famous ‘tree of life’ in the Garden of Eden. Describing this tree, however, as one with juicy fruit, large leaves and blossoms doesn’t jibe with the plant we know today.
It wasn’t until Eve ate its forbidden fruit that spruce was transformed. To punish the tree for its tempting part in the sin, its fruit was altered to rough, dry cones, and the leaves were shrunken to sharp, pointed needles, more in line to the spruce we see today.
If it was spruce that was the original Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, I’m happy to be able to report that since the original disgrace, there has only been the knowledge of good things that we have derived from this handsome and useful tree.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.