Plant of the Week – Picea abies

First written and posted on 24th December, 2013. Please click here if you would like to read the original post on This and That.

The last plant profile for December has to be the ultimate Christmas related plant – the Christmas tree! There are several popular types of trees that are used at Christmas but I chose the Norway spruce because it is the closest to my roots – see what I did there?! I hope you enjoy the read, I will continue with the plant profiles again in the New Year. 🙂

Picea abies

Genus: Picea

Species: abies

Family: Pinaceae

Common name: Norway spruce

TranslationPicea is the Latin name for spruce, derived from the word “pix” or “pitch”, referring to the sticky resin in spruce bark. abies is the Latin name for fir, which is another type of evergreen conifer.

Type of plant: Evergreen tree

Origin: Europe, particularly Scandinavia and northern Russia

Technical details

The ideal growing conditions for Picea abies are in full sun, in moist but well-drained soil, ideally acidic. They do well in an exposed or sheltered spot but needs protection from cold, drying winds.

Soil: Picea abies thrives in most soil types and pHs, including: acid and neutral: and loam, clay and sand.

Resilience: Very hardy.

Propagation: Propagation is easiest by grafting or semi-hardwood cuttings.

Cultivation: Picea abies is best known as Europe’s Christmas tree, it is a traditional feature in many homes at Christmas time because of its symmetrical shape, rapid growth, dark green foliage, and distinctive pine fragrance. Asides being used as a festive decoration, it is cultivated for use in large lawns, parks and woodland areas and makes a very effective screen or windbreak in cold northern climates.

Pest and disease problems: Picea abies is prone to attack from adelgids, aphids and conifer red spider mite.

Interesting Facts

1. The name conifer comes from Latin and means “cone bearing”. All conifers bear their male and female reproductive organs in separate cones (strobili) rather than in flowers. Male cones produce pollen grains which are transported to the female cones by wind and the seeds subsequently develop within the female cones. The foliage of conifers is either needle-like (like Pinus abies) or scale-like (like Cupressus and Chamaecyparis). The conifers belong to the group of seed plants known as the gymnosperms, which literally means ‘naked seed’. This is the main characteristic which differentiates them from the more advanced flowering plants (angiosperms) which bear their seeds encased in an ovary that becomes the fruit. Other gymnosperms include ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) and cycads.

Picea abies cone

2. Picea abies is Europe’s most important timber tree, valued for its straight, strong timber. Cultivated in plantations, it has many commercial uses, among them the manufacture of paper pulp and packing cases and for general carpentry. It is also one of the main woods used by violin makers, because of its lightness, flexibility and strength.

3. Other species of conifers that are also used as Christmas trees are: Abies nordmanniana (Nordmann fir): Picea pungens (Blue spruce): Abies koreana (Korean fir): and Abies fraseri (Fraser fir).

4. Evergreen trees have traditionally been used to celebrate winter festivals (pagan and Christian) for thousands of years. Pagans used branches of it to decorate their homes during the winter solstice, as it made them think of the spring to come. The Romans also used them to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia, and Christians use them as a sign of everlasting life with God.

5. The first Christmas trees came to Britain sometime in the 1830s. They became very popular in 1841, when Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s German husband) brought a tree back from Germany and had it set up in Windsor Castle. In 1848, a drawing of “The Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle” was published in the Illustrated London News and the tradition of decorating a tree at Christmas time became fashionable.

6. In Victorian times, Christmas trees would have been decorated with candles to represent stars. In many parts of Europe candles are still widely used to decorate Christmas trees today.

7. In 1895 Ralph Morris, an American telephonist, invented the first electric Christmas lights, similar to the ones we use today.

8. Tinsel was also created in Germany, were it was originally made from thin strips of beaten silver. But when plastic tinsel was invented it became very popular as it was much cheaper than real silver and also lighter to go on trees.

Picea abies needles

9. An angel or star is usually put on the very top of the Christmas trees, which reminds Christians of the angel who brought glad tidings of great joy to the shepherds in the fields.

10. The Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square, London, is the most famous one in Britain. Each year since 1947, a Christmas tree has been given to the people of London from the people of Norway in gratitude for Britain’s support for Norway during World War II. For many Londoners the Christmas tree and carol singing in Trafalgar Square signal the countdown to Christmas.

The tree is usually a Norway spruce (Picea abies) and stands at over 20 metres high and is between fifty to sixty years old. It is selected from the forests surrounding Oslo with great care several months, even years, in advance. The Norwegian foresters who look after it describe it fondly as ‘the queen of the forest’.

The tree is felled in November during a ceremony in which the Lord Mayor of Westminster, the British ambassador to Norway and the Mayor of Oslo participate. It is brought to the UK by sea, then completes its journey by lorry. A specialist rigging team erects it in the square using a hydraulic crane. It is decorated in traditional Norwegian fashion, with vertical strings of lights and a star at the top.

Resources

Plant Names Simplified (Johnson & Smith)

RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants

A Concise Guide to Trees (Jenny Linford)

Kew’s A-Z guide of Plants and Fungi (website)

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