Picea abies (L.) Karsten

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Article from Bean's Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles

Recommended citation
'Picea abies' from the website Trees and Shrubs Online (treesandshrubsonline.org/articles/picea/picea-abies/). Accessed 2024-06-17.


Common Names

  • Norway or Common Spruce


  • Pinus abies L.
  • Picea excelsa Link
  • Abies picea Mill.


(pl. apices) Tip. apical At the apex.
Organism arising via vegetative or asexual reproduction.
Lacking hairs smooth. glabrescent Becoming hairless.


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Article from Bean's Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles

Recommended citation
'Picea abies' from the website Trees and Shrubs Online (treesandshrubsonline.org/articles/picea/picea-abies/). Accessed 2024-06-17.

A tree 100 to 120, sometimes 150 ft, high, of tapering, pyramidal form densely clothed with branches and leaves; bark thin and scaling; branchlets pale brown, usually more or less downy, sometimes glabrous. Leaves mostly arranged in two sets in or near the horizontal plane, 13 to 34 in. long; very deep glossy green, quadrangular, with a few faintly defined lines of stomata on each face. Cones cylindrical, tapered at the top, usually about 5 in. long and 112 to 2 in. wide; light shining brown; scales bluntly triangular at the apex, the end jagged as if bitten off.

P. abies has its largest and most continuous area in Scandinavia and N.W. Russia, but also occurs wild in mountainous regions from southern Poland and the Carpathians of Rumania to S.E. France. From the rest of France it is absent, as it is from the Italian and Iberian peninsulas. In Britain it was apparently in cultivation by the 17th century, but the accounts are so confused that its early history remains obscure. In ‘Hunter’s Evelyn’ (1776) it is stated that the spruce is a native of Scotland, an error that no doubt springs from the vague use of the word fir for the Scots pine, the Norway spruce, and the silver fir.

Although handsome as an isolated tree and imposing in its height, it is known rather as a forest tree with us than in the garden. It is by nature a slender tree in this country, rarely over 10 ft in girth, but attaining a height of 130 ft or slightly more. Most of the finest trees are to be found in Scotland. The Norway spruce is still an important forestry tree, both in the Commission forests and on private estates, though it is not suitable for chalky or poor acid soils nor, except in moist soils, for areas where the rainfall is less than 30 in. The total area under Norway spruce in 1965 was 263,000 acres, and the annual planting rate by the Forestry Commission is 3,000 acres.

From the Supplement (Vol. V)

The Norway spruce has attained a height of around 150 ft at Kincardine Castle, Perths.; Cragside, Northumb.; and Trebartha, Cornwall. A specimen notable for both height and girth is: Lingholm, Cumb., 140 × 1514 ft (1983).

cv. ‘Aurea’. – Some examples measured recently are: Little Hall, Kent, pl. 1908, 70 × 514 ft (1984); Westonbirt, Glos., 108 × 6 ft (1980); Castlewellan, Co. Down, 90 × 712 ft (1983).

† cv. ‘Merkii’. – A dwarf shrub of roundish habit with a central leader. It was doubted whether this clone, described in 1884, was still in cultivation until a plant was found in the Dortmund-Brunninghausen Botanic Garden.

† cv. ‘Pyramidata’. – A tree of striking appearance, the main branches ascending at a fairly steep angle, diminishing in length towards the top of the crown. Described in 1853.

f. pendula. – Of the same type as ‘Inversa’, but more ornamental, is ‘Frohburg’, raised by the Haller nurseries in Switzerland and put into commerce in 1965 (Dendroflora, No. 11/12, p. 40 (1975)).


A monstrosity in which all or most of the leaves of some leading shoots are converted into cone-scales. It is of shrubby habit and does not develop a leader.


Young shoots of a clear creamy white, approaching afterwards the normal colour; very striking and ornamental. Raised by Messrs Hesse of Weener, Hanover.


Leaves yellowish white at first, later green or green streaked with yellow. In cultivation 1855. There are examples 60 to 90 ft high at Vernon Holme, Harbledown, Kent; Nymans, Sussex; Westonbirt, Glos.; and Hergest Croft, Heref. Probably not a clone.


A variety of low, dense, rounded habit, usually wider than high. A plant thirty years old will be under 3 ft in height. Annual growths very short. Leaves bright green, up to {3/8} in. long, forward pointing, two-ranked or more or less radially arranged. It is said to have been found originally on the Moira estate near Belfast towards the end of the 18th century. It was introduced to cultivation by Lord Clanbrassil of Tullymore Park, Co. Down, and what is believed to be the original plant still grows there, presumably moved there after its discovery. In 1956 it was 16{3/4} ft high with a rounded crown borne on several bare stems about 7 ft high, but cuttings from it growing at the Slieve Donard Nursery were only 6 to 8 in. high when fifteen years old (letter from Alistair Simpson in Gardening Illustrated (Feb. 1956), p. 40).


See under f. virgata.


A very striking, tightly fastigiate tree discovered in Fambach, Thuringia, Germany by a Dr Thomas (Auders & Spicer 2012).

f. columnaris (Jacques) Rehd

Of columnar habit, with short more or less horizontal main branches. Fairly frequent in the wild.

f. pendula (Laws.) N. Sylven

A very variable and confused group. Some wild plants dubbed pendula have drooping branches. At the other extreme is ‘Inversa’, with the main and secondary branches quite pendulous and appressed to the trunk.

f. viminalis (Alstr.) Lindman

Pinus viminalis Alstr

Main branches more or less horizontal, secondary branches pendulous, almost devoid of laterals and much elongated. This variant is reported to be fairly frequent in Sweden, and was described by Baron Alströmer, a friend of Linnaeus, in 1777.

f. virgata (Jacques) Rehd.

Abies excelsa var. virgata Jacques
Picea excelsa var. denudata Carr

An abnormality, found occasionally in the wild and among garden-raised seedlings, in which the main branches bear very few lateral buds, so that the energy of the plant is concentrated in the leading growths and the sparse laterals, which become snakily elongated. The leaves resemble those borne on leading shoots in being long and thick. A clone of this, perhaps the typical one, is fairly common in cultivation, but is no more than a grotesque curiosity, of no beauty. In f. monstrosa (Loud.) Rehd. the reduction of branching is carried to its extreme, the plant consisting of a single stem with a bud at the top, the only foliage being of the kind found on leading shoots. The variety ‘Cranstonii’, raised in Britain in the last century, is intermediate between this and the f. virgata.


Young foliage and shoots pale yellow, darkening to yellowish brown but finally becoming the normal green. Raised at Finedon Hall, Northants.


A very dwarf variety making a hummock rarely more than 2 ft high. Leaves greyish green, up to {1/2} in. long, radially arranged, pointing at right angles to the shoot or slightly forward. It was raised at Gregory’s Royal Nurseries, Cirencester. Hornibrook gives 1860 as the date, but the firm was wound-up in 1850, after Gregory’s death in that year. ‘Gregoryana Veitchii’ is similar but more vigorous, and the leaves on the side-branches are often pectinately arranged (Hornibrook, Dw. and Sl. Gr. Conif., Ed. 2, p. 150).


See under f. pendula.


According to Hornibrook, the true variety, which was raised in the USA, makes a low, rounded cushion, with thick, very short branches; radially arranged, roundish leaves up to {1/2} in. long, terminated by a long, hair-like point; and stout, ovoid, obtuse buds. The plants cultivated under this name in Europe he called ‘Pseudomaxwellii’. They bear some resemblance to the true variety when young, but become of more open habit; the buds are conical and acute, the leaves are flattened, and the hair-like tip is very short or wanting (op. cit., pp. 140–1).


A medium-dwarf shrub of pyramidal form, eventually 6 ft high, leaves yellowish green, up to {1/2} in. long, those on the upper side of the shoot forward pointing and slightly appressed.


A low, flat-topped shrub, 2 or 3 ft high, much wider.


A pendulous variety which does not develop a leader and is usually grown on the flat or trailing down a bank, and eventually covers a wide area with its trailing branches.


A semi-dwarf variety of dense, conical habit, 6 ft or more high.


A low bush with short, radially arranged leaves, with the branches prostrate or arching up and then spreading, eventually a foot or so high.

var. alpestris (Bruegg.) Kruessm.

P. alpestris Bruegg.
P. obovata var. alpestris (Bruegg.) Henry

An interesting local race found here and there in the central Alps at high altitudes. Leaves glaucous; twigs densely hairy; cone-scales rounded and entire at the apex. Henry, and other authorities, consider that this variety belongs to P. obovata (q.v.).