Trees of the Adirondack Park: Red Spruce on the Barnum Brook Trail at the Paul Smiths VIC (28 July 2012)

Trees of the Adirondacks:
Red Spruce (Picea rubens)

Trees of the Adirondacks: Red Spruce on the Barnum Brook Trail (28 July 2012) Trees of the Adirondacks: Red Spruce needles are short, four-sided, and unfriendly to the touch. Red Spruce on the Barnum Brook Trail (28 July 2012)
This page is no longer being updated.  For an updated and expanded version of this material, see: Red Spruce (Picea rubens).

The Red Spruce (Picea rubens) is a medium-sized evergreen conifer that grows in cool, boreal forests of the northeast, including the Adirondack Mountains. Red spruce is the provincial tree of Nova Scotia. This species is a member of the pine family. This tree is also known as Yellow Spruce, West Virginia Spruce, Eastern Spruce, and He Balsam. (The latter name is to distinguish the Red Spruce from the southern-growing Fraser Fir, which is known as "She Balsam" because of the resin-filled blisters on the tree's trunk. Red Spruce lacks the distinctive blisters.)

This species is vulnerable to damage from acid rain. Although acid rain – the result of pollutants in the emissions from power plants and other industrial facilities – has stressed Adirondack forests as a whole, two species have experienced particularly heavy losses: Red Spruce and Sugar Maple. In regard to the Red Spruce, acid rain leaches calcium out of the needles and reduces the needles' ability to tolerate freezing temperatures. Acid rain also interferes with the tree's ability to acquire nutrients from the thin Adirondack soils. This combination of reduced freeze tolerance and nutrient stress, which makes the trees more susceptible to insects and disease, is thought to be responsible for the loss of roughly half of the high-altitude spruce forests in the Adirondacks.

Trees of the Adirondacks: Red Spruce on the Barnum Brook Trail (21 July 2012)
The bark of Red Spruce trees is gray-brown to reddish-brown and furrowed on larger trees. Red Spruce on the Barnum Brook Trail (21 July 2012)

Identification of the Red Spruce: Red Spruce trees have four-sided, short,yellowish green needles on woody pegs. The cones, which fall soon after maturity, are around 1.5 inches long. They hang pendantly and are reddish-brown and woody. The slender new twigs have a reddish coat of down through the first year. The bark of Red Spruce trees is gray-brown to reddish brown.

This species flowers in May. The pendant male flowers are bright red, while the female flowers are erect and bright green tinged with purpleIn growth habit, this tree is rather open-branched, with up-curved tips.

Keys to identifying the Red Spruce and differentiating it from other coniferous trees include its needles, bark, growth habit, and habitat.

Differentiating Red Spruce from White Spruce is somewhat trickier.

Uses of the Red Spruce: Red Spruce is one of the most important forest trees in the northeast. The wood is light, soft, and faintly tinged with red. This tree is used primarily for lumber and pulpwood. It is also used for construction lumber, plywood, boxes, sash frames, and musical stringed instruments. It is the preferred wood for piano sounding boards, guitars, mandolins, organ pipes, and violin bellies. It is also used as a Christmas tree. One unique use of red spruce was spruce gum.

This plant was used medicinally by several North American Indian tribes as a remedy for throat ailments, lung trouble, and measles; the needles were also used to make a beverage and the gum to make pitch. Native people also used the peeled roots of Red Spruce for lacing. Early settlers used the fresh green buds to flavor beers.

Birds of the Adirondacks: Red-breasted Nuthatch near the VIC building (17 May 2014)
Red-breasted Nuthatches breed in coniferous forests where spruce, fir, pine, and hemlock are present. Red-breasted Nuthatch near the VIC building (17 May 2014)

Wildlife Value of the Red Spruce: Red Spruce provides food and cover for various mammals and birds. Habitats which include Red Spruce are particularly important as winter cover for White-tailed Deer and, to a certain extent, Moose. Red Squirrels eat buds and seeds. Mice and voles consume and store significant amounts of spruce seeds. Porcupines feed on the bark in winter.

Red Spruce provides food and nest sites for a number of birds. The Spruce Grouse feeds on the buds and foliage. Red spruce seeds reportedly make up 25 to 50 percent of the diet of White-winged Crossbills. Black-throated Green Warblers and Pileated Woodpeckers also forage on Red Spruce trees.

The Red Spruce is a common tree species in the breeding habitat of a wide variety of birds, including:

Cape May Warbler Blackpoll Warbler
Golden-crowned Kinglet Spruce Grouse
Northern Saw-whet Owl Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Black-throated Green Warbler Mourning Warbler
Canada Warbler Olive-sided Flycatcher
Yellow-rumped Warbler Evening Grosbeak
White-throated Sparrow Red-breasted Nuthatch

Trees of the Adirondacks: Balsam Fir and Red Spruce growing on the old golf course on the Silvi Trail (25 July 2012). 
White-throated Sparrows breed in coniferous forests of spruce, Balsam Fir, Eastern Hemlock, Tamaracks, and pines. White-throated Sparrow in a Red Spruce tree by the first overlook on the Barnum Brook Trail at the Paul Smiths VIC (6 October 2014)

Distribution of the Red Spruce The range of this species is much more limited than those of the Black Spruce, Tamarack, or Balsam Fir. The range of the Red Spruce extends only from the Maritime Provinces of Canada  west to Maine, southern Quebec, and southeastern Ontario, and south into central New York, eastern Pennsylvania, northern New Jersey, and Massachusetts. There are also stands of Red Spruce in parts of the Appalachian Mountains. In New York State, Red Spruce trees are found primarily in the north and eastern parts of the state, including the Adirondack Mountains and the Catskills.

Red Spruce trees grow in climates with cool, moist summers and cold winters. Most of the soils on which Red Spruce occurs are developed from glacial deposits. Red Spruce trees can usually be found in mixed conifer forests with Eastern Hemlock and Balsam Fir. Red Spruce trees also grow in mixed hardwood/conifer forests with aspens, birches, maples, and beech species.

Red Spruce at the Paul Smiths VIC: Red Spruce trees, in contrast to Black Spruce and Tamaracks, do not grow in the middle of bogs or marshes. However, they do tolerate somewhat moist soils and can often be found in mixed stands, with other conifers and hardwoods. Look for Red Spruce trees along many of the trails at the VIC, growing near Eastern White Pine, Eastern Hemlock, Red Maple, Hobblebush, and Balsam Fir. A number of herbaceous plants flourish near this tree, including Clintonia, Common Woodsorrel, and Wild Sarsaparilla.

The most convenient place to observe the Red Spruce and compare it with other conifers at the VIC is on the Barnum Brook Trail. This species is one of the eleven tree species marked with signage along this trail. The identified Red Spruce tree is about a quarter of a mile from the entrance gazebo. If you take the left hand fork and walk the trail in a clockwise direction, the tree is just past the bench, on the right hand side of the trail, just before the Eastern White Pine.


Trees of the Adirondack Mountains

Explore the VIC

The Paul Smiths VIC offers a wide variety of programs throughout the year to educate and inform Adirondack Park residents and visitors about the natural wonders of the Adirondack Mountains. You can help support these programs by joining the Friends of the VIC. More information on Friends of the VIC memberships

Explore the Trails

The VIC trails are free and open to the public, from dawn to dusk, spring through fall. In winter, the trails are open to cross-country skiers and snowshoers for a fee. Day or season passes may be purchased.