Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Piney-Looking Trees Part 4: Loose In The Spruce

A Whiny Preamble

So I’m back home, and the week to date’s been a bit bumpy. First, I’ve been a bit sleep-deprived from our late-night storm-delayed flight home Sunday night. Then yesterday someone stole the catalytic converter off my truck. (Apparently, this is becoming a pretty common crime, and my vehicle- a Toyota 4Runner- is the prime target. See here for more info.) So today meant lots of cycles spent with the Toyota dealer and the insurance company… Then last night I went mtn biking with the guys, a ride that I planned to take easy, but quickly turned into a mad chase, after a call back from the Midvale PD put me 10 minutes behind the group.

Tangent: Normally our group has a “moderate-speed” climber (my organic chemistry professor friend) who I could count on to keep the group’s climbing speed down a bit. But the professor- let's call him "Rick"- was absent last night, so I was chasing hard.

I Always Feel Like I Need More Time

Finally caught up to the gang shortly before the intersection with Mid-Mountain trail.

On Mid-Mountain, in the week and a half I’ve been away, the world has changed. With minor exceptions, the wildflowers are GONE. Every single flower I’ve blogged about and seen along this trail- Columbine, Sticky Geranium, Richardson Geranium, Low Larkspur, Western Clematis, Utah Sweetpea, Wild Rose, Ballhead Waterleaf, Yellow Fritillary, Scarlet Gilia, as well as all the remaining Balsamroots and Mules Ears- gone, gone, gone. I knew this was coming, but the shock of the sudden disappearance hit hard. I’m still trying to watch the world wake up, and it’s kicking back for a late-summer siesta…

Side note: There are a few new/different flowers out now, about which I hope to blog soon, most notably Indian Paintbrush and various Asters and/or Fleabanes.

An hour later, heading back to the trailhead on the final descent, for no apparent reason, I crashed, hard. Today I’m scraped and bruised with a sore knee and a bump on the head (from helmet impact.)

Tangent: I almost never crash, even when I'm doing something stupid. On those very, very rare occasions, once every 2 or 3 years, when I do crash, my buddies just stare at me for a minute with a mix of consternation and horror, as if they’d been watching Jesus walk across the water, when suddenly he falls in and gets soaked.

Then, to top it off, my brother back in Massachusetts, who’s is one of my absolutely favorite people on the planet (and is one of the 5 or so people who actually read this blog) has come down with Lyme Disease. What’s particularly ironic about this is that unlike me, my brother- let’s call him “Phil”- has almost zero interest in the outdoors. How does Phil get bit by a tick if Phil never goes outside??

OK so there’s 2 or 3 other things I could bitch about, but this preamble is in danger of developing into a full-blown theme, and not a pretty theme, but the most common, unappealing blog theme of all: Middle Aged Man Complaining About Stuff. So let’s quit bitching and talk trees.

The Topic At Hand - Wasatch PLT #3

I almost never see Engelmann Spruce below 8,000 feet, and more often I run into it at 8,500 feet and above. In fact I see a lot more Spruce skiing than mtn biking in the Wasatch, because most mtn biking is below 8,500 feet while most skiing happens above. A good spot to see lots and lots of Engelmann Spruce from on high is from the ski lift at Brighton- all the big piney-looking trees below you (and beside you on the steeps) with reddish/pinkish trunks are Engelmann Spruce. The “Underwear Tree” alongside the Crest Express lift is an Engelmann Spruce.

But Engelmann Spruce often occurs lower, either on North-facing slopes or along drainages. A great place to see plenty up close is along the Great Western trail as it climbs from the intersection with Big Water trail up to the head of the Mill Creek drainage.

Engelmann Spruce is the most shade-tolerant and least sun-tolerant of the 3 main piney-lookers, and as a result it’s almost never a “pioneer” species that colonizes open, burnt or logged spaces, but rather a follow-on, or “climax” species, slowly growing to adulthood in the shade of other, more sun-tolerant trees. In the Wasatch those “nurse trees” are Aspen, Fir or Douglas Fir; farther afield they’re often Pines. As the Spruce grow they eventually shade out their former “nurses” and come to dominate the canopy, becoming the dominant tree over 9,000 feet.

Oftentimes over 9,000 feet the Engelmann Spruce will be co-dominant with Subalpine Fir. The Spruces lives longer and are more shade-tolerant, but the Firs grow much more speedily and are quicker to exploit new openings in the forest. This ongoing battle of succession is analogous to that going on in the foothills which we looked at when we talked about Bigtooth Maple and Gambel Oak.

Sun-tolerant trees tend to thrive in areas and periods of disturbance. And for millions of years, the most common disturbance has been fire. A century+ of fire-suppression has caused Engelmanns to thrive and dominate in many areas where they didn’t historically. And the single-species dominance has made Engelmanns vulnerable to epidemic-level infestation of Pine Bark Beetles, which kill the Spruce by destroying the tree’s cambium layer. The worst of these infestations in Utah is on the Markagunt Plateau, North of Zion and East of Cedar City, where vistas now feature rolling acre after acre of dead, standing Spruce snags.

Tangent: Fire suppression changes the mix of trees in many parts of the country. Another great example is in Sequoia National Park, where decades of suppression have allowed White Fir to proliferate in the spaces by the Giant Sequoias, which in turn has inhibited the establishment and growth of younger Sequoia seedlings.

I mentioned earlier that DNA seems to indicate that Picea is the genus most closely related to Pinus (Pines) and they may have shared a common ancestor as recently as the early Cretaceous.

Tangent for non-Dinosaur-savvy-readers: The dinosaurs lived in an era called the Mesozoic (we are in the Cenozoic era now.) The Mesozoic is divided into 3 periods, each of which lasted several tens of millions of years: the Triassic, the Jurassic and the Cretaceous. Most of the best-known dinosaurs- such as T-Rex and Triceratops, lived in the Cretaceous.

The Other Spruce

Today there are 35 species of Picea strung across the Northern hemisphere, of which 7 are native to North America. And of those 7, only 2 are native to Utah. The vast majority of the time (95% according to one source I read, but I think it’s more like 99%) that you see a Spruce in a Utah forest, it’s an Engelmann Spruce. The other 1%(?) or such, it’s a Blue Spruce, Picea pungens, sometimes called “Colorado Blue Spruce.”

Tangent: The “Colorado” moniker is also often used for Columbine as well. I dislike it. There’s no indication that either Blue Spruce or Columbine is more native to Colorado than Utah, and I think this naming trend is just another aspect of the odd-but-prevailing bias towards Colorado over Utah as the ideal “Rocky Mountain” destination for people on the coasts. What’s even weirder is that “Colorado Blue Spruce” is the state tree of Utah.

Nested Tangent: Seriously, what is up with the whole “State Tree”, “State Bird”, “State Flower”, “State Gem” thing? What does the tree/bird/flower/gem get anyway? Special treatment? A tax break? Do state legislatures really have so little to do that they need to hold these little virtual Miss-Universe pageants for trees and rocks?

Return-to-Main-Tangent: A far better state tree would be the Utah Juniper. It’s the most common tree in the state, has “Utah” in the name, is tough, hardy and almost un-killable, and although its shade is a bit meager, it gives shade where you need it- in the heat of the desert.

Ironically, Blue Spruce is almost certainly more common in suburban yards and office parks than it is in the wild. The very-noticeably-blue Blue Spruces you see around town are all specific, well-developed cultivars, bred for their form, and the blue-ness of their needles (which, like all blue-tinted conifer foliage, is caused by wax build-up on the stomata.) If you go trudging around the Wasatch looking for Spruce with blue needles you’ll never find them; I’ve never noticed wild Blue Spruce needles to look any bluer than Engelmann Spruce needles. No, the way to tell the 2 Utah Spruces apart is by their cones (pic left). Blue Spruce cones are always bigger- generally twice as long.

The best place to find Blue Spruce is in canyon bottoms along watercourses. Here’s an easy spot to find one: drive up Big Cottonwood Canyon, past the “S-Curves.” A couple miles further the canyon opens up dramatically and there are parking lots on both sides of the road, a trailhead on the left (Mill D trail) and a side road going off to the right and across the creek. Immediately after is an open park-like meadow on the right by the creek, with a couple of big, nice-looking PLT’s right in the middle (pic above a bit & left, Trifecta for scale.) Those are Blue Spruces, and you can easily park, walk over and check them out.

The inside of an Engelmann Spruce forest is shady, cool and sometimes a bit spooky (in July they’re often buggy as well, with plenty of mosquitoes.) Even in mid-July, large, 3 or 4-foot deep icebergs of old winter snow linger here and there on the shaded floor. The densely-needled boughs block much of the sun, delaying the melt significantly

Tangent: Backcountry skiers are sensitive to foliage density. Most backcountry-skiing in the Wasatch occurs in slopes covered with Aspen or Engelmann Spruce. The Spruce boughs catch, hold or deflect far more snow than the bare Aspen branches. So if you’re looking for a good, deep-powder ski run, a line through the Aspens generally beats a line through the Spruce. But if you’re looking to punch in a skin-track up to the top, sticking to the Spruces is often far less work.

Engelmann Spruces are probably the stateliest trees of Utah. Their dark, cool shade and somber ambience is all the more remarkable in that it so often exists only a few miles from hot, brown desert valleys. Of all the cool things about Utah, the coolest thing for me, the thing that never ceases to surprise me, are the contrasts in the natural landscape. Old-growth Engelmann Spruce forests capture this sense of contrast better than almost anything.


Phil O. said...

All I can say is: Regular lawn care is important. Also, the "riding with turtle" graphic from yesterday is awesome, and should be on a t-shirt.

Watcher said...

Thanks Phil. I'm thinkinging the "riding with turtle" graphic on the front, and "swinging dead cat" on the back of the t-shirt.