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Tree 13: Sitka Spruce

Latin name: Picea sitchensis
Family: Pinaceae
Other names: Coast Spruce, Tidewater Spruce
Origin: Native to West Coast of North America
Height: up to 55m tall but in its native habitat it can grow to 100m.
Autumn leaf loss: Deciduous
Gender Type: Monoecious (Male and female flowers on same tree)

The Sitka Spruce is named after the city of Sitka southern Alaska. It is the mainstay of the forest industry in Britain.

It was introduced to Britain in 1841 by the great plant hunter David Douglas and has been grown for timber in upland plantations ever since. It flourishes in plantations in the north and west of Britain on damper and elevated sites. Its natural range is on the West coast of North America, from California to Alaska.

The Sitka Spruce has greyish brown bark which when mature flakes off in round scales. Its flattened solitary needles grow on pegs and have a slatey blue tint. The needles are sharp.

Small male and female flowers grow on the same tree. The light brown cones have thin papery scales with crinkled edges. If you run your thumb across these scales you have a percussion instrument in your hand, albeit a quiet one.

In Britain the Sitka Spruce accounts for around half of commercial plantations. The trees grow quickly – up to 1.5m a year in young trees. The wood is versatile with lots of uses: small trees are particularly good for making paper because of their fibre length and white colour. It is used in the manufacture of various types of board; sawlog material is used for pallets and packing cases with the better grades of wood also being used for building, including ship building. It was even used in the early planes built by the Wright brothers.

Sitka spruce makes a cheap Christmas tree and although its needles are prone to drop, it is still popular in homes across the country.