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Anna B. Comstock

The Norway Spruce

Teacher's Story

dropcap image HE Norway spruce is a native of Europe, and we find it in America the most satisfactory of all spruces for ornamental planting; it lifts its slender cone from almost every park and private estate in our country, and is easily distinguished from all other evergreens by the drooping, pendant habit of its twigs, which seem to hang down from the straight, uplifted branches. We have spruces of our own—the black, the white and the red spruces; and it will add much to the interest of this lesson for the pupils to read in the tree and forestry books concerning these American species. Chewing gum and spruce beer are the products of the black and red spruce of our eastern forests. The Douglas spruce, which is a fir and not a spruce, is also commonly planted as an ornamental tree, but it is only at its best on the Pacific Coast, where it is one of the most magnificent of trees.


Staminate blossoms and young cone of a Norway spruce.

Photo by G. F. Morgan.

The Norway spruce tree is in form a beautiful cone, slanting from its slender tip to the ground, on which its lower drooping branches rest; the upper branches come off at a narrower angle from the sturdy central stem than do the widespreading lower branches. On the older trees, the twigs hang like pendulous fringes from the branches, enabling them to shed the snow more readily—a peculiarity which is of much use to the tree, because it is a native of the snowy northern countries of Europe and also grows successfully in the high altitudes of the Alps and other mountains. If we stroke a spruce branch toward the tip, the hand slides smoothly over it; but brush backward from the tip, and the hand is pricked by hundreds of the sharp, bayonet-pointed leaves; this is another arrangement for letting the snow slide off.

If we examine a twig of the present year's growth, we can see on every side of its brown stem the pointed leaves, each growing from a short ridge; but the leaves on the lower side stretch out sidewise to get the light, and those above lift up angularly. Perhaps the twig of last year's growth has shed its leaves which grew on the under side and thus failed to reach the sun. The leaf of the spruce is curved, stiff, four-sided and ends in a sharp point. It is dark yellowish above and lighter beneath and is set stiffly on the twig. The winter buds for next year's growth may be seen at the tips of the twigs, covered with little, recurved, brown scales quite flowerlike in form. In the balsam fir, which is often planted with the Norway spruce, these buds are varnished.


A cone of Norway spruce, showing that the spiral of the scales is in rows of five.

Photo by Cyrus Crosby.

The cones are borne on the tips of the branches and hang down. In color they are pale, wood-brown; they are from four to six inches long, and are very conspicuous. They are made up of broad scales that are thin toward the notched tips; they are set around the central stem in spirals of five rows. If we follow one spiral around marking it with a winding string, it will prove to be the fifth row above the place where we started. These manifold spirals can be seen sometimes by looking into the tip end of a cone. The cone has much resin on it, and is a very safe box for seeds; but when it begins to open, squirrels impatiently tear it to pieces, harvesting the seeds and leaving a pile of cone-scales beneath the tree to tell of their piracy.

A Norway spruce in blossom is a beautiful sight; the little, wine-red pistillate cones are lifted upwards from the tips of the twigs, while short, terminal branches are laden with the pollen-bearing catkins, which are soft and caterpillarish, growing on soft, white stems from the base of scales which enclosed and protected them during the winter; these catkins are filled with the yellow dust. The young cones continue to stand upright after the scales have closed on the pollen which has been sifted by the wind to the ovules which they guard; and for some time they remain most ornamentally purplish red. Before the cone is heavy enough to bend from its own weight, it turns deliberately around and downward, as if the act were a wilful deed, and then changes its color to green, ripening into brown in the fall.

The Norway spruce grows on the Alps abundantly, and like the youth with the banner, "excelsior" is not only its motto but its scientific name, (Picea excelsa).  Here it grows to the height of one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet. Its wood is valuable and its pitch is marketed. In this country, it is used chiefly for ornamental planting and for wind-breaks.


A Norway spruce.

Photo by Cyrus Crosby.

Lesson CCIII

The Norway Spruce

Leading thought—The Norway spruce is one of the most valuable of the trees which have come to America from Europe. It grows naturally in high places and in northern countries where there is much snow; its drooping twigs cannot hold a great burden of snow, and thus it escapes being crushed.

Method—This lesson should begin in the autumn when the cones are ripe. The tree should be observed by all of the pupils, and they should bring in twigs and cones for study in the schoolroom. The lesson should be taken up again in May when the trees are in blossom.


1. What is the general shape of the tree? Do the lower branches come off at the same angle as the upper? If untrimmed, what can you see of the trunk? Do the lower branches rest upon the ground? What advantage would this be to the tree in winter? Do the twigs stand out, or droop from the branches? Of what advantage is this in case of heavy snow? What is the color of the foliage? Where did the Norway spruce come from?

2. What is the color of the twig? How are the leaves set upon it? Are there more leaves on the upper than on the under side of the twigs of this year's growth? Of last year's growth? Brush your hand along a branch toward the tip. Do the leaves prick? Brush from the tip backward. Is the result the same? Why is this angle of the leaves to the twig a benefit during snowstorms?

3. Take a single leaf. What is its shape? How many sides has it? Is it soft or stiff? Is it sharp at the tip? Describe the buds which are forming for next year's growth. Look along the twigs and see if you can discover the scales of the bud which produced last year's growth?

4. Where are the cones borne? How long does it take a cone to grow? Is it heavy? Is there resin on it? Note that the scales are set in a spiral around the center of the cone. Wind a string around a cone following the same row of scales. How many rows between those marked with a string? Look into the tip of a cone and see the spiral arrangement. Sketch and describe a cone-scale, paying special attention to the shape of the tip. Try to tear a cone apart. Is this easily done? Hang a closed cone in a dry place and note what happens.

5. Describe the seed, its wings and where it is placed at the base of the scale. How many seeds under each scale? When do the cones open of themselves to scatter the seed? Do you observe squirrels tearing these apart to get the seed?

6. The Norway spruce blossoms in May. Find the little flower which will produce the cone, and describe it. What color is it? Is it upright or hanging down? Do the scales turn toward the tip or backward? Why is this? Where are the pollen-catkins borne? How many of them arise from the same place on the twig? Can you see the little scales at the base of each pistillate catkin? What are they? Are they very full of pollen? Do the insects carry the pollen for the Norway spruce, or does the wind sift it over the pistillate blossoms? After the pollen is shed, note if the scales of the young cones close up. How long before the cones begin to droop? Do you think it is their weight which causes them to droop?

7. What use do we make of the Norway spruce? What is it used for in Europe?

"All outward wisdom yields to that within,

Whereof nor creed nor canon holds the key;

We only feel that we have ever been

And evermore shall be.

And thus I know, by memories unfurled

In rarer moods, and many a nameless sign,

That once in Time, and somewhere in the world,

I was a towering pine.

Rooted upon a cape that overhung

The entrance to a mountain gorge; whereon

The wintry shade of a peak was flung,

Long after rise of sun.

There did I clutch the granite with firm feet,

There shake my boughs above the roaring gulf,

When mountain whirlwinds through the passes beat,

And howled the mountain wolf.

There did I louder sing than all the floods

Whirled in white foam adown the precipice,

And the sharp sleet that stung the naked woods,

Answer with sullen hiss.

I held the eagle till the mountain mist

Rolled from the azure paths he came to soar,

And like a hunter, on my gnarled wrist

The dappled falcon bore."

—From "The Spirit of the Pine," Bayard Taylor.