• Joey Karrigan

A Field Guide to Katmai's Spruce

Updated: Feb 13, 2020

We at Emerald Air Service are dedicated to giving you the most educational, well-rounded bear viewing experience available. With a passion for exploring and sharing Alaska’s stunning wilds, we also want you to have resources available to engage Katmai to the extent that you desire. From its flora to its volcanoes, Katmai is a superabundance of preserved wildlife hosted on the Alaska Peninsula.

This article represents the first of our educational series on Katmai National Park and Preserve. Katmai is a vast 4 million acres of land, including shining lakes, lush coasts, and towering volcanoes. Katmai is also home to some of the best bear viewing locations in the world. And we hope to provide you with just that: the best bear watching in Alaska.

White Spruce (Picea Glauca)

With a transcontinental range across North America, white spruce is native to northern temperate and boreal forests. It’s the most important tree in spruce-birch forests and takes to well-drained soils. White spruce grows mostly in open forests and is seldom present when permafrost is close to the surface.

Mature white spruce found in Fairbanks, Alaska (photo credit: Wikipedia).

Distinguishing Between White and Black Spruce

For one, height is the easiest way to distinguish between the medium-to-tall white spruce and the small-to-medium black spruce. White spruce grows normally to heights between 50 and 100 feet tall, but can grow up to 130 feet. Black spruce, on the other hand, generally stick to heights anywhere from 15–50 feet tall, but can reach heights up to 100 feet. Secondly, you can distinguish white and black spruce by their needles. White spruce needles are longer than 1/2 inch and sharp. Black spruce needles are typically shorter and blunter; white spruce twigs lack the hair that characterize black spruce.

A black spruce can be identified by its shorter, blunter needles.

Black Spruce (Picea Mariana)

Without getting too close to the tree, black spruce and white spruce can look rather similar in a lot of ways. What is perhaps one of the most signifiant differences between the two is that while white spruce prefers well-drained soils, black spruce tends to grow in swamp and muskeg, cold wet flats, boggy areas, north facing slopes, and silty valley bottoms.

The preference for swamp and bog causes slower growth rates in black spruce. Their roots spread widely and remain shallow. The lack of deep roots allows black spruce to be susceptible to windthrow, the tree being uprooted by winds, or windsnap, the tree trunk snapping from winds. Due to a high water table and poor growing conditions, these trees can often be very deformed.

You can identify a black spruce by its egg-shaped cones.

Black Spruce Cones

What is interesting about the small, egg-shaped cones, which grow close to the main trunk, is that they remain on the tree for years, perhaps prepared for the case of a forest fire to release the seeds. The cone of the black spruce more easily distinguishes it from both the white and the sitka spruce.

Sitka Spruce (Picea Sitchensis)

Its name being derived from its prevalence in the community of Sitka in southeast Alaska, Sitka spruce is by far the largest species of spruce in the world, growing to heights up to 225 feet tall and eight feet in diameter. Due to their massive height and diameter, these trees are heavily logged in southwest Alaska. Katmai National Park is the the western limit of the Sitka's range in Alaska. Sitka Spruce stretch down the coast of Alaska, through Canada, and can be found as far south as the coast of California.

These large spruce trees are long-lived, with individual trees known to be over 700 old. Although these trees can grow to be very old, size is not necessarily an indication of age, as these trees grow very rapidly under favorable conditions. It bears needles that are flattened, up to an inch long. You can identify them by their two whitish bands on their lower surfaces.

The papery texture of the cone indicates that this is a sitka spruce, along with the white bands present on the needles.

Distinguishing Between White and Sitka Spruce Cones

The cones here are visually similar to a white spruce, but are differentiated by their papery texture. A white spruce cone, in comparison, has scales that are smooth with rounded edges, as you can see in the picture below.

The distinctly rounder scales of the white spruce cones distinguish it from a sitka spruce.

Identifying Spruce in Katmai

If you’re distinguishing the tree by height, black spruce tend to be shortest, followed by white spruce, with sitka spruce being the tallest. Height, of course, is dependent on the age of the trees, the environment, and especially the weather. There are areas in Katmai where spruce trees do not grow above three feet tall (1 meter), but you can see by the size of the trunk that they are old trees. If you’re distinguishing the tree by needles, white spruce tend to be longer than black, but similarly sized to sitka. Sitka spruce needles, however, are flat compared to white spruce needles, which are four-angled and will roll between the fingers. Since sitka spruce needles are flat, they won't roll between the fingers easily. If you’re distinguishing the tree by cones, black spruce cones can be identified by their egg shape, while both sitka and white spruce bear more elongated cones. The difference between sitka and white spruce cones can be seen in their texture, with sitka spruce cones having a papery feel to its scales. The scales of the white spruce cones, however, are smooth and rounded.

We hope this article serves as something of a field guide while you’re out in Katmai, home to the best bear viewing in the world.

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