Description & Overview

Black Spruce (Picea mariana) is a cold climate tree native to Wisconsin and found mostly in the northern third of the state, concentrated inwards toward the central sandy counties and along Lake Michigan, where it’s found in wet, acidic, and sphagnum bogs. Identified by its straight trunk with slender, short branches, its lower branches droop and have upturned tips. Needles are short and blue-green and densely packed. Its cones begin a red color, sitting atop the tips of the twigs near the tree top, appearing almost flower-like. As they mature into small brown cones they hang downward and remain on the tree for several years.

Core Characteristics

Category: Conifer

Wisconsin Native: Yes

USDA Hardiness Zone: to zone 2

Mature Height: 20-50 feet

Mature Spread: 20-30 feet

Growth Rate: Slow

Growth Form: Upright, narrow, and conical

Light Requirements: Full Sun to Partial Shade

Site Requirements: Wet, organic, well-drained, acidic, and cool temperatures.

Flower: A strobili produced at the crown which is erect and green-purple in color.

Bloom Period: May – June

Foliage: ¼ - ½" long needles, four-sided blue-green needles with a white powder coating.

Fall Color: Evergreen

Urban Approved: No

Fruit Notes: Purple-ish aging to medium brown cones, under 1 1/4". They persist on the tree for several years.

Suggested Uses

Black Spruce prefers wet but well-drained soil with cooler temperatures and really does best in the more northern areas of the state. It has been found in southern areas; however, usually in cold sphagnum bogs. It is sensitive to heat and for that reason, the humid and hot temperatures in the lower more southern areas of Wisconsin can be challenging. While it is shade tolerant, for the best growth it should be sited in an area with full sun (at least 8+ hours). Black Spruce is sensitive to salt spray and pollution and should not be planted near roadways.

Wetland sites that are high in organic matter are ideal conditions for Black Spruce and are wonderful for restoration or remediation purposes. With a shallow root system, they are very good for soil erosion control.

With blue-green needles, Black Spruce could be used for as an attractive screen provided the area is wet and cool. This particular spruce isn’t used very often as a specimen tree, but there are cultivated varieties available that have ornamental value such as ‘Aureovariegata,’ ‘Beissneri,’ ‘Fastigiata,’ ‘Nana,’ and ‘Mont Tremblant.’

According to the Department of Natural Resources of Minnesota, trees in cold swamps have “practically stagnant growth and trees two inches in diameter have been found to be 127 years old” Black spruce.

Black Spruce (Picea mariana) is a cold climate tree native to Wisconsin and found mostly in the northern third of the state, concentrated inwards towa…

Wildlife Value

Black Spruce provides the most value to songbirds who will use the trees as perches and nesting. The cones are small and readily eaten by Pine Siskins, finches, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Ovenbirds, Crossbills, Magnolia Warblers, and Pine Grosbeaks. Northwoods birds, such as the Canada Jay and Olive-sided Flycatcher, will also make their home in Black Spruce.

Snowshoe hares, when in abundance, will cause extensive damage to seedlings and saplings.

There is conflicting information as to whether red squirrels eat the seeds. Some say they are heavy feeders of the seeds and others say otherwise. Like other animals, we can assume that if there is nothing more appetizing, they will resort to Black Spruce seeds.

Maintenance Tips

Black Spruce is a slow-growing tree and maintenance is minimal.

As a water-dwelling species, its roots are shallow which could subject the tree to wind damage.

Black Spruce (Picea mariana) is a cold climate tree native to Wisconsin and found mostly in the northern third of the state, concentrated inwards towa…

Pests/Problems

Black Walnut Tolerant: Yes
Deer Resistant: Yes and No
Rabbit Resistant: Yes

In the northern part of Wisconsin, Eastern dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium pusillum) can cause serious problems for Black Spruce, causing reduced vigor and witches’ brooms that may kill the tree.

Budworms, sawflies, midges, beetles, wood borers, rots, rust, and Rhizosphaera needle cast fungus are all potential pests. Consistently wet soils will reduce stress, which will in turn, will reduce the likelihood of succumbing to pests or problems.

Deer will occasionally nibble on young trees, but rarely on a mature tree; it’s by no means their food of choice.

Rabbits tend to leave the tree alone.

Leaf Lore

The genus name Picea is Latin for ‘Pine.’ The specific epithet mariana is a name for a variety of plants with white-mottled leaves, in reference to the white powdery coating on the needles.

Chewing gum can be made from resin and beer made from boiling the tips of the branches.

Black Spruce is primarily used for its pulp and timber. It has also been used for Christmas trees.

The Ojibwa historically used Black Spruce for medicinal purposes by infusing the roots and bark to treat trembling and fits and stomach pain. The Potawatomi made a poultice from the inner bark and applied it to inflamed skin.

Indigenous peoples used the wood of Black Spruce to make drying racks, fish traps, and cabins. Roots were used for threads, basket making, and sewing horseshoes and canoes. Branches were used to make beer and cones were chewed to ease toothaches and sore mouths. The resin was boiled with tallow to make a pitch for caulking canoes.

Companion Plants

As mentioned previously, Black Spruce pretty much demands that it be planted in wet areas. Given that, planting alongside species that enjoy similar conditions will dictate what companions will do well. Consider Tamarack (Larix laricina), Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea), White Spruce (Picea glauca), Balsam Poplar (Populus balsamifera), Northern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis), Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides), Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera), or Bog Birch (Betula pumila).

Other options include Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis), Speckled Alder (Alnus incana var. rugosa), Red-twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea), Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta), and Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum).

Black Spruce (Picea mariana) is a cold climate tree native to Wisconsin and found mostly in the northern third of the state, concentrated inwards towa…
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Written by Beth DeLain