Common Name: Red Spruce, West Virginia spruce, Eastern spruce, Yellow spruce, Spruce pine, He-balsam, Épicea Rouge du Canada, North American red spruce – The word spruce is derived from Pruce, the name of the Prussian state in Old French; spruce trees were exported from Prussia to England in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Scientific Name: Picea rubens – – The generic name is the Latin word for “pitch pine” from the Greek pissa meaning pitch; Picea was the commonly used Latin name for all pine, spruce and fir trees. Rubens is the Latin word meaning red.
Potpourri: The red spruce is a member of the coniferous, mostly evergreen Pine Family (Pinaceae) which includes the firs, hemlocks and larches in addition to the pines and spruces. Spruce trees are best distinguished by their needles, which are stiff, pointed and have a square cross section that can be distinguished readily by rolling them between the fingers. Fir trees, which closely resemble spruce trees in profile and appearance, have softer, flat needles that cannot be rolled. An additional difference is that spruce needles are attached to the bark with a woody projection that is retained when the needle drops off; fir trees lack this projection.
There are three spruce trees indigenous to eastern North American: white, black and red. White spruce is found in the north, and, as the largest of the three, it is the most important commercial pulpwood tree species of Canada. Black spruce is found in the same geographic regions as white spruce, and is generally considered one of the most widely distributed conifers in North America. Red spruce is the southernmost and predominates in some notable areas of West Virginia, including Canaan Valley and the Dolly Sods Wilderness; the tallest mountain in the state is Spruce Knob (4863 feet). Red spruce is the provincial tree of Nova Scotia. The three species are very difficult to tell apart unless they are side by side, although the reddish-brown bark distinguishes the red spruce from the darker bark of the black spruce and the gray bark of the white spruce. Hybrids of the three species further confuse the identification as they are not infrequent in the areas where their ranges overlap.
Spruce trees were widely used by Native Americans without any particular distinction between the red, black or white as their wood, resin, and needles have essentially the same properties. For medicinal purposes, the pitch or resin was extracted and used as a poultice for the treatment of rheumatic joints and as a vulnerary – to promote the healing of wounds; for example the Huron Indians applied a spruce resin poultice over burns. The resin was also used as a salve for epidermal treatment, most notably as a palliative for cold-induced foot sores. The Chippewa Indians applied the resin to the eyes as a treatment for snow blindness. On the practical side, spruce roots were peeled and split to use for lacing and the resin was used as caulking for canoe joints and as waterproofing for strips of hide used for binding.
From the ethnobotanical perspective, however, the most important Native American uses of the spruce tree were the chewing of the resin as gum and the decocting of the boughs and needles as ingredients for a beverage. Chewing spruce tree resin was a practice that was adopted and adapted by the colonists who mixed it with beeswax to improve its masticatory consistency. The American chewing gum industry began in 1848 when John Curtis concocted “State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum” and sold it to local merchants in Portland, Maine. The predominance of spruce gum was evanescent, however, as Curtis shifted production to flavored paraffin gums in 1850. The use of chicle from the sapodilla tree became the primary component of chewing gum in 1869, a practice introduced by an even earlier group of Native Americans, the Mayans.
The consumption of spruce-flavored beverages which came to be called spruce beers was an equally important colonial adaptation of the Native American practice of making spruce needle tea to treat colds and a variety of other ailments. In 1535 Jacques Cartier came to North America on his second voyage with a royal patent to claim new lands on behalf of the King Frances I of France. Ascending the Saint Lawrence River he finally reached the Iroquois village of Stadacona, now lower Quebec City, and, as it was too late in the year for a return trip to France, Cartier elected to winter over. By February of 1536, the severity of the weather and the paucity of fresh food had taken its toll; most of the crew had succumbed to scurvy and about fifty had died. In what may have been an act of desperation, Cartier consulted the Iroquois (allegedly Dom Agaya, the son of Chief Donnacona) and learned of the time-honored tribal medicine made from spruce needles boiled in water. There is some uncertainty as to the particular conifer consumed, some sources asserting that it was white cedar. The concoction was quickly prepared and administered to the remainder of the crew, who reportedly all miraculously recovered.
Scurvy was the scourge of sailors and soldiers consigned to long periods of deployment absent the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables with their attendant “vital amines” or vitamins. Although scurvy was known in ancient times – it was described by Hippocrates of Ancient Greece – it did not become a significant problem until the long voyages to the New World that began in the 15th Century. Vasco da Gama lost most of his crew to scurvy in his transit of the Cape of Good Hope as did Magellan in his subsequent global circumnavigation. The cure for scurvy is Vitamin C or ascorbic acid – the etymology attests to the association as the Latin word for scurvy is scorbutus so that ascorbic acid refers to “scurvy acid” – vitamin C is antiscorbutic. While the relationship between diet and scurvy was historically recognized by some cultures, it was not conclusively proven until trials were conducted by the Scottish physician James Lind in 1747. The use of spruce beer to provide therapeutic ascorbic acid was apparently well known in the colonial New World, as is attested by John Josselyn who wrote in 1672 that “the tops of green spruce boughs, boiled in beer, is assuredly one of the best remedies for scurvy.” Even James Lind noted its efficacy in writing that “the Newfoundland spruce beer … is an excellent medicine.” Captain James Cook was noted not only for his nautical acumen but for the fact that he never lost a sailor to scurvy. It is likely not coincidental that Cook spent five years surveying the coast of Newfoundland and there learned of the benefits of spruce beer – which he subsequently employed to prevent scurvy on his voyages of discovery in the Pacific.
The red spruce and its black and white cousins have long been the mainstays of the eastern timber industry, originally for the masts of sailing ships and subsequently for paper pulp. A much more interesting application is in the use of spruce for the manufacture of musical instruments. The uniform grain texture and density of spruce make it one of the best woods for conveying the vibrations of the strings to the body of the instrument for amplification, a property generally referred to as tone wood. It is used to make the front, bass-bar, sound-post, the corner, top, and bottom blocks, and linings of violins and fiddles, the front of guitars and the most important single component of pianos, the sounding board. The long wood fibers of spruce provide high strength and flexibility at a relatively light weight, a fact that led the Wright Brothers to build the first effectual aircraft out of spruce wood; spruce is still used to make gliders. However, the maligned “Spruce Goose,” a wooden seaplane made by the Hughes Aircraft Company to ferry troops to Europe during World War II (its first and only flight was in 1947) was made of birch, the name a pejorative alliteration that Howard Hughes detested.