PLANTS THAT CHANGED OUR LIVES Norway Spruce
Fifty years ago Christmas trees were predominantly five- to eight-year-old Norway spruces ( Picea abies: Picea the Latin name for the tree; abies the Latin name for a fir tree: so literally a spruce tree that looks like a fir). They were mostly bought during December from local shops or depots scattered around the countryside and cost around £1 a foot (equivalent to about £20 a foot today) with the grower having been paid for his years of loving care one shilling a foot ( c.£ 1 a foot today). They seldom had any roots but if they were freshly cut and you put the stumps into a bucket of water as soon as you got home, with a bit of luck they would keep their needles until Twelfth Night.
Not so if yours was one of the 25 per cent of houses which had central heating in the 1960s: your lovely, ornament and tinsel-bedecked tree began to look more brown than green before Christmas and by Twelfth night your vacuum cleaner was clogged with green needles.
How do I know all this? Trust me: I’m a forester.
Central heating in houses grew rapidly in the 1970s – by 1980 60 per cent of houses had central heating – and Picea abies became increasingly unpopular because the warmer the room the faster its needles fell. Foresters rose to the occasion, firstly by offering pine trees which keep their needles better but frankly don’t look much like a traditional Christmas tree, then ‘designer’ trees with exotic names: Nordmann, Fraser, Noble and Douglas firs, Serbian and blue spruce – all more expensive than Norway spruce. And that’s where we are today. When you go to buy your Christmas tree this year you will be faced with the dilemma of choosing a traditional potentially needle-shedding Norway spruce or a walletbusting designer tree with a name you will probably have difficulty remembering.
Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert are usually credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition in the United Kingdom when, in 1840, they imported several spruce trees from Germany. Although it is fair to say that this probably started the Christmas tree tradition, decorated spruces had been part of the Christmas tradition in Britain amongst the aristocracy long before then. Forty years earlier, during December 1800, Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III, set up the first recorded tree at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor. She must have been imbued with a German tradition that went back at least another 200 years as there is a report dated 1605, from an unknown source, of how at Yuletide people in Strasbourg ‘set up fir trees in the parlours and hang thereon cut out of many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold foil etc.’
Far less well known is the fact that we owe a debt of gratitude to the Norway spruce for much more than being nice to look at during the festival of Christmas, for it has been largely responsible for the pleasure generations of people have derived from listening to music.
But first some botanical stuff. Picea abies is native throughout Europe from Norway in the northwest, Poland in the east, the mountains of central Europe and south to the north of Greece.