The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson
The winter solstice has come and gone. We’re on the up-swing now! As the sun rises higher in the sky, every day grows a little longer. Thanks to everyone in the countryside who put up colored lights for the holidays. What a lift they give us during this darkest time of the year. I suppose they wouldn’t be such a treat if they were up all year.
The same holds true for Christmas trees. They quickly lose their charm once their needles start traveling around the house.
During a recent walk, my friend Kay mentioned that we know almost nothing about the trees that we so eagerly invite into our homes in December. They’re evergreens, yes, but what kind? And what’s the difference between a fir and a spruce tree?
Here’s what I learned.
The tree that was in our house, and is now out by the bird feeder, is a spruce. Like all spruce trees, its needles (leaves) are 4-sided in cross-section and grow around the stem out of little wooden “pegs.” All spruce trees produce cones that hang down a short distance from the tip of the branch. Our little tree is too young to produce cones (seeds), but its full-grown parent trees dropped their cones all over the driveway in autumn, so it’s safe to say that it’s a Picea glauca or white spruce. Picea mariana or black spruce hang onto their cones all winter.
Our tree was definitely not a fir. Fir trees have flattened needles, blunt at the end, that are attached to the stem by what one might call suction cups. Fir cones grow upright. When they mature in autumn their seeds fall off, leaving behind lonely abandoned spikes.
The fragrant Balsam fir, Abes balsamea, is our most popular Christmas tree. When its needles become hidden in the carpet, they pierce stocking feet less aggressively than spruce needles. In fact, a pile of fir boughs makes a fairly comfy mattress.
Spruce and fir trees are more than just ubiquitous shapes in the Island landscape. Spruce extracts have been used for healing wounds, soothing sore muscles, treating scurvy, easing arthritic pain. Rotted spruce was dried and pulverized to make baby powder. Spruce resin became a commercially popular chewing gum.
As for fir trees, their resin was used as a fire-starter, a salve, an adhesive. Today if you have a bad cough, you can still buy Buckley’s Cough Syrup. One of its tasty ingredients: balsam fir extract. Yum.
Kind of makes you appreciate that tree you dragged to the side of the road, doesn’t it.
Summary. To tell fir and spruce trees apart, remember that fir needles are flat, spruce needles are square; fir cones grow up, spruce cones grow down.
The old year is behind us and the New Year tingles with possibilities. Never chewed spruce gum? Maybe 2018 is the year to give it a try. You may learn to like it. We have plenty of spruce trees in the Cove and we’re always glad to share a little sap with our neighbors.
Happy New Year!