Sitka spruce: a botanical giant, and some giant names in botany
Under cover: at the feet of a specimen Sitka spruce. Illustration: Michael Viney
The enrichment of geography that Google now makes possible has had me browsing on the island of Sitka, off the ragged coast of Alaska but quite a bit short of where the Aleutian archipelago reaches out west towards Russia. It has about 8,000 people, plus Sitka port and city, in which the little wooden cathedral of St Michael has a distinctly Chekhovian air. Indeed, the island’s modern name is Baranof, after the governor of Russian America, Alexandr Baranov.
His territory lasted half a century or so before the Russians, hunting the sea otter to near extinction for its fur, sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 for $7.2 million. (All this from Wikipedia, with the fact that the first editor of the Sitka Times , in 1868, was one Barney O’Ragan, who must be somebody’s great-grandfather.)
Along with the cathedral and some lovely snowy mountains, however, what Google showed me was a forest service shelter, on an inlet at the north end of the island, that “provides local residents as well as tourism kayakers an opportunity to escape coastal rain”. Such uncommon candour brings us nicely to Sitka as home habitat for the spruce tree that has dominated Ireland’s forests for the best part of a century.
The tree grows, in fact, along much of the Pacific coast, from the rain-drenched maze of the Alaskan fringe right down to California, where sea fogs are enough to keep it watered. Sitka just happened to supply an important early specimen, and its botanical dubbing as Picea sitchensis helped to nail the name in place. Given the tree’s runaway success in these islands, it should probably have been named after Archibald Menzies, the Scottish naturalist who discovered it in Puget Sound in 1787.
Fittingly, for a tree that grows to great heights when left alone in nature, some giant names in field botany have figured in the Sitka story. John Muir, for example, the Scottish-born founder of the United States’ Sierra Club and pioneer defender of wilderness, once measured a Sitka at Wrangel, Alaska, with a trunk 150cm in diameter and 764 years old. Another, in Washington, was 55m high at 240 years old.
I have just learned this, fittingly, from a dendrological masterwork, The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland by Henry John Elwes and Augustine Henry, republished in facsimile to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Society of Irish Foresters. Only 300 sets of its original eight, large-format volumes emerged, with private funding, between 1906 and 1913, and publishing the elegant and hefty facsimile edition also needed a substantial body of subscribers.