An Actual Norwegian

A lot of people love Norway spruces (Picea abies). It has whole websites devoted to extolling its virtues as a landscape tree, as a source of lumber, and as a windbreak and a good species to plant on reclaimed land. I have great memories of climbing them as a kid. One in particular was right outside my window when I was between the ages of 10 and 18 years old.

Mature Norway spruce

When my mother and stepfather took us to look at what would become our home on Spy Hill in Beacon, the first thing my brother and I did was look for trees to climb. The house was at that time over 80 years old and some of the trees on the property may have been that old too. There was a Norway spruce planted in front of the south-facing porch and it was probably over 80 feet tall. It had branches right down to the ground because it had been grown in the open. It was especially wide because one of the lateral branches had decided to grow upward and had become a sort of mizzen mast to the main trunk.

The lower branches become angled downward in old trees; they descend from the trunk and rest on the ground all around the tree. The needles are attached to small, pendulous branches that hang straight down from the lateral branches that extend outward from the trunk in whorls. The overall effect is to give Norway spruces the appearance of being covered with needled drapery that sweep outward in a broad skirt near the ground.

Pendulous branches and cones
Pendulous branches and cones

My brother Ray and I both climbed the tree, but either he started up it before I did, or he was just more excited to be up there. In any case, he did not come down when my mother called for us. Instead he went all the way up to the top of the tree and stood amid the little branches there crowing, “Look at me. I made it to the top!” and waving his arm around while making the crown of the spruce sway wildly back and forth. Mrs. Grady, the elderly woman who was about to sell us her house, just about had a heart attack.

We moved into that house when I was 10 years old and just starting to get interested in natural history. (My first Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds (third edition) was in a pile of debris the Gradys left on the front lawn.) I identified the huge conifer as a Norway spruce and have seen them pretty much everywhere for the rest of my life. Native to central and northern Europe, they grow at all altitudes from Norway to the Ural Mountains and south to southern Poland and also in the Alps and the mountainous regions of Germany and the Balkans.

It is not particularly widespread in Norway, growing in the central portion and along the border with Sweden in the south, but it is at least more aptly named than the Austrian pine, which barely grows in Austria at all.

Rockefeller Center Christmas tree
Rockefeller Center Christmas tree

In the U.S. I have frequently encountered it growing in the woods where it has survived after being planted as a landscape tree and then abandoned. It grows quickly—two to three feet per year—during the first 25 years of its life and can be planted in shade or in the sun. It can be planted in the middle of a grassy pasture and it will outgrow the grass. It is used in Pennsylvania and Indiana to replant strip mined areas.

Because it grows quickly and requires little maintenance, it is often planted as a Christmas tree. The enormous tree required by Rockefeller Center each year is frequently a Norway spruce.