Peak Spruce

by Jonathan Damery, Editor of Arnoldia

February 28, 2020

Colorado spruce at the Arnold Arboretum on a foggy day.

Peak Spruce

Colorado spruce at the Arnold Arboretum on a foggy day.

Four Colorado spruce (Picea pungens, 1476 and 22808) rise above their neighbors on a foggy day at the Arnold Arboretum. Photo by Jonathan Damery.

In the summer of 1872, mere months after the Arnold Arboretum had been established, Harvard botanist Asa Gray embarked on a cross-country trip with his wife Jane Loring Gray. The trip was enabled by the recently completed Pacific Railroad, which connected the eastern and western rail networks, and Gray would disembark, at station stops, to examine plants along the way. On the return trip, in August, the Grays made a special diversion in central Colorado, where they met with a physician-turned-botanist named Charles Christopher Parry. Although Parry was homebased in eastern Iowa, he had spent much of the previous two dozen years botanizing and surveying in the western United States. In 1861, Parry had made the first documented ascent of one of the peaks—the tenth highest in the Rocky Mountains—and named it after Asa Gray. The Grays were there to see Parry and to summit Grays Peak.

Within the next few weeks, Parry wrote to Gray, in Cambridge, promising that seed was on the way. “I shall have to attend to the conifers this week,” he wrote. “I think now of shipping the cones in heavy ore sacks containing about ½ bushel.” While it seems reasonable that the seed would have been destined for the newly formed Arboretum, the first shipment from Parry wouldn’t appear in the Arboretum records until 1873, with more shipments to come. In September 1874, Parry wrote to Gray, from Denver, noting that a box of plants had been sent to the Harvard Botanic Garden, in Cambridge. He went on to describe a collection of seedling spruces that had been included for the Arboretum. Seeds would follow. “No time just now to answer Mr. Sargent’s inquiries,” Parry wrote, naming Charles Sprague Sargent, the botanical newcomer who had been appointed to the head of the Arboretum. A grove of four Colorado spruce (Picea pungens, accessions 1476 and 22808) are now among the oldest Parry plants in the Arboretum. Their seeds were included in one of those shipments in 1874.

From afar, Parry’s spruces—sentinels on the edge of Kent Field—look like architectural sketches. The branches are sparse and lean, hewing close to the ramrod-straight trunks. The trees are nothing like the younger, dense specimens of this species that frequently inhabit residential landscapes; rather these look untrammeled, untamed. Sargent noted this, too, when he wrote about the species in the twelfth volume of his Silva of North America, published in 1897: “The feeble growth of the lower branches on the oldest trees in cultivation, now thirty or forty feet in height, show that those branches will soon perish, and that Picea Parryana [the name Sargent had coined for the species], although charming in its early years, is less well suited to become a permanent ornament of parks and gardens than trees which, producing more vigorous lower branches, maintain to old age the conical form, perfect from the ground up, which is essential to the greatest beauty of conifers of pyramidal habit.”

Sargent could have been commenting on these very trees, or perhaps others growing at the Harvard Botanic Garden, given that Sargent credited Parry with providing seed of this species—then unnamed by botanists—to Gray in 1863. Parry is also credited with the first scientific collections of other western species, like the Torrey pine (Pinus torreyana) and the bristlecone pine (Pinus aristata). In 1880, when Sargent launched the Arboretum’s first major research project, a comprehensive assessment of North American forests for the United States Census, it is no surprise that Parry would be involved. Parry accompanied Sargent on a West Coast collecting trip in the summer of 1880. It was a rushed journey, and an undercurrent of exasperation is evident in Parry’s account of the trip. In a letter to Gray, he described “the hurry & push of Sargent.” To a veteran collector like Parry, it must have been obvious that the work of a field botanist would never be completed in a summer trip, nor even a lifetime.

Up close, the trunks of Parry’s spruces are surprisingly stout, showing their age. The bark is chunky and pockmarked. The lowest branches are almost too high for examination, but they are predominantly needless, covered with lichen. These branches, too, will certainly be shed. Their appearance accentuates a sensation of encountering the trees in a non-garden state. On a recent afternoon, after a night of low, soaking, almost spring-like rain—and before another night of the same—a low fog settled on the Arboretum. The spruces were stunning and conspicuous—as though a stage backdrop had been placed between them and their neighbors—separating the near and far into shades of white and gray. With the mist enveloping the distance, it would be tempting to imagine the trees on a mountain in Colorado, as though this was what Parry would have seen when he collected the seeds so long ago.

3 thoughts on “Peak Spruce

  1. Thank you for this fascinating lookback on the history of P. pungens and the Arnold Arboretum. Wonder, if Sargent were alive today, if he could be convinced that old Colorado spruces are just as perfect and beautiful as young ones, just in a different way?

  2. This is an interesting article! The records that have been kept regarding the trees are impressive.

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