Sitka Spruce

Picea sitchensis
PROFILE Sitka by PP 520x289

On the Pacific Northwest coast there are trees that shoot up 150 feet or more from the sodden earth, their massive trunks enrobed in mosses and lichens, their closely-spaced crowns all but invisible from the forest floor. Not uncommonly they would reach even loftier heights—200, even 300 feet tall—but scant few were spared the logger's axe. These trees may not be the tallest on earth, but they are among the stoutest.

Some of these girthy giants are Douglas firs; the fattest of which, called the “Queets Fir” after the Washington State river it resides by, is almost 16 feet in diameter. Some are Western Red Cedar, a species whose immensity is often cited in terms of wood volume, or cubic feet. The largest red cedar grows near Lake Quinault on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, and it contains almost 18,000 cubic feet of wood, enough to build 70 three-bedroom houses. Rounding out this titanic trio is the Sitka Spruce, whose trunks seldom attain either the height or girth of its compeers, but whose growth rate in this soggy region outpaces almost any conifer tree, anywhere. 

Sitka is the largest of the 35 spruce species, and is one of only five tree species that grow to heights over 300 feet. The “Carmanah Giant” on Vancouver Island is the tallest living Sitka Spruce at 315 feet; the largest, in terms of volume, is a tree growing along Washington's Queets River—a mile or so downstream from the “Queets Fir”—that boasts almost 12,000 cubic feet of wood to its 248-foot-frame. This “Queets Spruce” is estimated to be between 350 and 450 years old (Sitka Spruce can live to 800 years) and puts on more than three cubic feet of wood a year, adding about a foot and a half to its height. 

How do these trees grow so rapidly on the coast? In a quintessentially Pacific Northwest word: rain. Parts of Oregon's coastline receive more than seven feet of drippy precipitation annually, and this deluge, taken with the spruce’s tolerance of shade (rain and cloudcover in the region are rarely uncoupled) results in prodigious growth by the trees. The Oregon coast's ample rainfall is a product of orthographic lift, in which moisture-laden air blown over from the Pacific is pushed westward across the rugged peaks of the Coast Range. The air cools as it climbs, condensing the moisture to form clouds that billow and swell with mounting humidity. Once maximum saturation is reached, the clouds let loose their cargo over the land, watering a vast temperate rainforest and producing some of the heaviest rainfalls in the continental United States.

Sitka Spruce are often found in mixed stands with Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock, Western Red Cedar, Shore Pine, Red Alder, and Big-leaf Maple. It is in riverine valleys and alluvial plains—areas flat and low-lying, with well-drained soils—that spruce reach their full Brobdingnagian splendor. They are distinguished by their thin, gray, shingled bark and needle-like evergreen leaves, which, when squeezed, poke back rather painfully. 

Oregon's champion Sitka Spruce, the largest known representative of its kind in the state, is 144 feet high and resides within Cape Meares NWR. The Cape Meares champion spruce was designated after winter storms toppled the Klootchy Creek Spruce in December 2007. At more than 200 feet tall, the Klootchy spruce, formerly growing near the city of Seaside, held the post of national champion for 34 years and was the first tree to be designated an Oregon State Heritage Tree. Knowing that the Klootchy spruce was in decline as a result of recent storm damage, two arborists, Brian French and Will Koomjianwho lead worldwide expeditions to climb and measure the largest trees of each speciesstarted querying tree watchers about other large Sitka Spruce trees in the Northwest. Calling their project "Ascending the Giants", French and Koomjian endeavor to preserve champion trees everywhere, as well as raise awareness of the importance of trees and the sensitive ecosystems that exist in and around them.    

While designation as a state champion tree does not confer legal protection, the Cape Meares spruce is already protected from harvest due to its location within the federally protected Refuge. 

Visitors can see the Cape Meares champion by hiking a short trail that branches off (to the south) from the Oregon Coast Trail, which meanders through the heart of the old-growth forest on the Refuge and adjacent Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint.

Facts About Sitka Spruce

-Range extends from Southern Alaska coast to Northern California

-Can grow to 300 feet or more and live for nearly a millennium 

-Oregon's largest Sitka Spruce, located on Cape Meares, is 144 feet tall and approximately 800 years old, with a crown spread of 93 feet

-Needles are gray-green, short and needle-like; will poke painfully when squeezed