White + Engelmann spruce

Category: Softwood
Region: Interior
Title: White spruce (Picea glauca) and Englemann spruce (Picea engelmannii)

White spruce and Engelmann spruce grow throughout BC’s interior east of the Coast Range. In areas where their ranges overlap, they interbreed and are referred to as interior spruce. White spruce can grow to 40 metres and Engelmann spruce to 50 metres.

White spruce and Engelmann spruce are part of the SPF (spruce-pine-fir) species group. The wood of the two trees cannot be differentiated visually and there are very minor differences in the properties. Spruce has a high strength-to-weight ratio and is well known for its working properties.

As part of the SPF species group, their kiln-dried lumber is used as a structural framing material. Both species are also used for specialty products including musical instruments.

Where it grows

White spruce and its hybrids grow throughout BC’s interior. While it is found in the south, white spruce is more prevalent in northern regions where it often is more common than poplar and pine in burned areas. It usually grows in pure stands but is a major component of mixed stands, generally with trembling aspen, white birch, balsam fir, tamarack, black spruce, jack pine, lodgepole pine, subalpine fir and Douglas-fir. White spruce can live close to 300 years.

Engelmann spruce is found at high elevations and grows best on deep, rich soils with adequate moisture. It is found in pure stands but is more frequently in mixed stands—with subalpine fir in areas with long, cold winters and short, cool summers, and with lodgepole pine in drier areas. Engelmann spruce trees can often live more than 600 years.

Engelmann spruce and white spruce interbreed in areas where their ranges overlap and are referred to as interior spruce. The pure species of white spruce is generally only found north of Dawson Creek.

Did you know?

Engelmann spruce and white spruce are found in BC’s interior east of the Coast Range Mountains. Engelmann spruce has been successfully introduced into high-elevation plantations on the west side of the Coast Range and on Vancouver Island.

Identifiable characteristics

White spruce is a medium-sized tree with a fairly even conical crown and branches that often extend to the ground. It can grow to 40 metres with a diameter of one metre. The bark is loose, scaly and greyish-brown. The needles are four-sided, sharp and stiff and are arranged spirally on the twigs. They are whitish-green and foul-smelling when young but become more pleasant smelling with age. Seed cones are light brown to purplish and hang from the upper branches. The seed scales have a smooth, rounded outer edge. Pollen cones are pale red.

Engelmann spruce is a medium- to large-sized tree that is straight and can reach 50 metres tall and one metre in diameter. Branches near the ground tend to droop. The bark is loose, scaly and reddish-brown to grey. The needles are four-sided and sharp but not particularly stiff. They are deep bluish-green with two white bands on both the upper and lower surfaces. The needles are arranged in all directions on the twigs. Seed cones are yellow to purplish brown and hang from the upper branches. Their papery seed scales are tapered at both ends and have a ragged outer edge. Pollen cones are usually yellow to purplish-brown.

Did you know?

Wildfires are a major factor in re-establishing white spruce stands. Without the fires, more shade-tolerant black spruce would become a dominant species.

Common uses and applications

White spruce and Engelmann spruce are part of the SPF (spruce-pine-fir) species group along with lodgepole pine and subalpine fir. Kiln-dried SPF lumber is used as a structural framing material in all types of residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural building applications. It is used exclusively in the manufacture of prefabricated housing, trusses and other structural components.

White spruce is extremely versatile as dimension lumber because of its high strength-to-weight ratio. It is used to make softwood plywood, medium-density fibreboard (MDF), paperboard and felt. It is also used in building construction (framing, sheathing, roofing, sub-flooring), general millwork, interior finishing, boxes and packing cases. Its dimensional stability and superior gluing properties make it popular in the prefabrication industry. As a premier pulpwood, the species is used in the manufacture of newsprint and bleached Kraft pulps.

White spruce and Engelmann spruce are a good choice for a number of specialty products. White spruce is used for sounding boards in musical instruments, paddles and oars, cooperage, organ pipes, shelving and ladder rails. It is good for food containers because it is almost colourless and odourless when dried. Engelmann spruce wood is used to produce violins, pianos and aircraft parts.

Indigenous peoples use peeled, split and soaked spruce roots to sew the seams of bark baskets and some use them to make tightly woven coiled baskets. Sheets of spruce bark are good for making cooking baskets and canoes, and some Indigenous communities use bark for roofing and baby carriers. White spruce saplings are used for snowshoe frames and bows, and the gum is heated to make a glue to fasten skins to bows and arrowheads to shafts. Decayed wood is used to tan hides.

Commercial properties

The wood of white spruce and Engelmann spruce cannot be differentiated visually. Engelmann spruce wood is slightly denser, harder and stronger, but the differences are very minor.

Spruce has a high strength-to-weight ratio and is well known for its working properties. The wood dries rapidly with small dimensional movement and little tendency to check. It is relatively easy to work, with good machining qualities. It turns, planes and shapes well and can be sanded to a smooth finish. The wood glues moderately easily, has moderate nail and screw holding ability, and takes a good finish.

Commercial availability

White spruce, Engelmann spruce and interior spruce are graded in the single-species SPF group (spruce-pine-fir) along with lodgepole pine and subalpine fir. They are produced predominantly as SPF lumber in structural grades according to National Lumber Grades Authority (NLGA) rules for dimension lumber. Select Structural, #2 and better, and stud grades are the most common grades produced. Specialty in-house grades, lamstock and export grades are also available. Appearance grades are produced according to NLGA rules. Clears, shop lumber and moulding stock are most common, although many potential appearance grades can be produced.

Spruce lumber is dried according to end-use and customer specifications. Kiln drying inhibits natural staining of the wood, improves its strength and stiffness, enhances its appearance, and increases its resistance to decay and attack by insects.

Bioenergy Research & Demonstration Facility, UBC
Photo credit: Don Erhardt

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