Picea abies is likely the most abundant coniferous tree in Europe’s boreal forests. The genus name Picea is derived from the Latin pix, meaning pitch or resin, and the specific epithet abies refers to a resemblance to the fir trees (Abies spp.). Picea abies is commonly known as Norway spruce or European spruce.
Its native range extends from the French Alps to the Ural Mountains, and from northern Greece to Siberia. The species has also been introduced to parts of North America and Great Britain. Norway spruce grows best in cool, humid climates with neutral to acidic soils at elevations from sea level to 2000m (~6500 ft.). In addition to forest communities, its shallow root system also makes it possible to grow in boggy areas.
In northern and central Europe, Picea abies typically grows to about 30m tall (~100 ft.) by 10m wide at maturity. The tallest known Norway spruce, found in Slovenia, measures 62.26m tall (204.25 ft.). Norway spruce trees that are 300 to 400 years old have been found at the northernmost part of the native range. However, where introduced in North America and Great Britain, Norway spruce trees normally live for less than 200 years. The oldest known Norway spruce is estimated to be 468 years old, from Germany’s Bavarian Forest.
Young trees have cone-shaped crowns, which become more column-like as the tree gets older. The trunk or bole is straight and symmetrical, with peeling bronze-colored bark in young trees and grey, scaly bark in older trees. Older Norway spruce bark is often coated with algae and crustose lichens. The lower branches are penduluous, while the higher branches extend at right angles to the trunk or point slightly upwards.
The light to deep green needle-like leaves are four-sided and slightly flattened, with stomata present on all surfaces. Each leaf is blunt-tipped and is 1-2.5cm (to 1 in.) in length. The leaves are spirally-arranged, with each leaf being attached to its twig by a small woody structure called a sterigma.
Norway spruce trees first produce seed when they are 30 to 40 years old. The trees are monoecious, with yellow to brown male catkins and wind-pollinated purplish female cones maturing in late spring or early summer. Seeds ripen towards the end of autumn. Norway spruce trees bear 10-16cm (4-6 in.) long cylindrical cones. These are covered in diamond-shaped scales with notched tips. The winged seeds generally fall from the cones in late autumn and winter, though sometimes as late as spring. If seeds land on hard-crusted snow, wind may disperse them yet further. The seeds germinate readily, but Norway spruce also reproduces by layering.
Picea abies grows quickly compared to other conifers, making it a good source of timber. Its strong, soft and fine-grained wood is used in papermaking, furniture, and building construction. The wood is also used to make guitars, violins (including the Stradivarius violins), and the sound boards of pianos. Norway spruce is also the species most often chosen for Christmas trees in Europe.
The young male catkins have been used as a flavouring for various dishes, and the roasted middles of the young female cones are said to be “sweet and syrupy”. The raw seeds can also be eaten. The bark is used as a source of tannin, and the inner bark, when dried and ground, has been kneaded into breads and used as a thickening agent for soups. The resin is thought to have antiseptic properties and has been used to make medical plasters. Swiss turpentine can be made from the twigs. The twigs and fragrant needle-like leaves have traditionally been made into antiscorbutic and diuretic infusions; the leaves themselves have been used in perfumes. The new shoot tips are a source of Vitamin C and are used to flavour spruce beer.
In Europe, Norway spruce bark is eaten by red deer; in Canada, the seedlings are consumed by snowshoe hares during the winter. Birds and small mammals feast on the oil-rich seeds, and grouse have been observed to eat the leaves.
Finally, Picea abies is the most popular ornamental spruce grown in North America, with over 150 cultivars in existence. Dwarf, weeping, and prostrate forms are available as well as cultivars selected or bred for different-coloured needles.