Distribution maps for Brewer’s spruce (Pices breweriana) showed a grove at Babyfoot Lake in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness southwest of Grants Pass OR (Siskiyou National Forest, Josephine County). Leonard and I were excited to finally have the opportunity to see this rare tree, which has an extremely restricted natural distribution and often grows in very inaccessible or unvisited spots. As we began hiking the trail to Babyfoot Lake, the probability of our seeing a Brewer’s spruce appeared slim. In 2002 the Biscuit Fire burned the area. Although the understory is recovering, most of the large conifers were ghostly grey skeletons. The trail was still pretty with many successional plants, so we continued on to Babyfoot Lake. Much to our delight, the Brewer’s spruce at the lake proper had survived the wildfire.
Brewer’s spruce, also called weeping spruce, is native only to the Siskiyous and Klamath Mountains of southwest Oregon and northwest California where it grows in scattered groves between 4,000 and 8,000 feet.
The trunk is often limbed almost to the ground and is covered with reddish brown bark covered with thin grey scales. The vertical, main branches have string-like branchlets that hang down and can grow to several feet in length. These branchlets are found in the mid and lower canopy. The tree is usually ten to twenty years of age before the drooping branchlets begin to show.
Brewer’s spruce needles spread out from all sides of the twigs or branchlets. The needles (leaves) are not as sharp or as thick as other native spruces. They are slightly flattened with a white stomatal bloom below.
The cones ripen to brown and have scales that are broad and rounded with smooth edges.
Brewer’s spruce are slow growing. Their ridge top habitat has cold, wet winters with plentiful spring melt water and warm, relatively dry summers. With tough branches and drooping branchlets, Brewer’s spruce is well adapted to deal with heavy snow and ice loads. Because of its shallow root system, Brewer’s spruce is susceptible to windthrow. Unfortunately this shade tolerant species is readily killed by fire.
The wood is soft, heavy and close-grained with many knots making it of little commercial value. It appears the main value for this tree, which can live to 900 years, is aesthetic.
Brewer’s spruce is named for William Henry Brewer (1828 – 1910), an American botanist who discovered the tree.
The mesic (requiring moist habitats) sites in which Brewer’s spruce grow are characterized by the presence of Sadler oaks (Quercus sadleriana) -the topic of my next post.