The Gymnosperm Database


Illustration from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomè, Flora von Deutschland Österreich und der Schweiz, 1885, Gera, Germany (Stüber 1999).


Foliage and branchlets of tree in habitat [Jose Angel Campos Sandoval 2008.05].


Cone from tree in habitat [Jose Angel Campos Sandoval 2008.05].


High-resolution distribution maps at the Euforgen website.


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Conservation status

Picea abies

(Linnaeus) Karsten 1881

Common names

Norway spruce, epicéa commun (French French) (Farjon 1990), épinette de Norvège (Canadian French) (Taylor 1993), gemeine fichte (German), jel europeiskaya (Russian) (Farjon 1990).

Taxonomic notes


Numerous varietal and subspecific names have been published, but few are sufficiently distinct to be worth recognising. The most widely recognised is var. acuminata (Beck) Dallimore & Jackson from the SE of the range in the Balkan Peninsula (Farjon 1990).

A large area of hybrid introgression with P. obovata has developed since the two species met after the last Ice Age between the Ural Mts and Finland, treated as Picea × fennica (Regel) Komarov (Farjon 1990). Some authors treat P. obovata as a subspecies or variety of P. abies.

Its closest relationship is probably with the P. asperata complex of China, which are often similar in cone morphology and foliage (Frankis 1992).

The species Picea alpestris Bruegger ex Stein is commonly treated as a variety, P. abies var. alpestris (Bruegger) P. Schmidt (Farjon 1990), but is distinct in morphology and probably more closely related to P. obovata and other allied Asiatic species (Frankis 1992).


Trees to 40–50 m tall and 100–150 cm dbh; crown conic. Bark orange-brown, finely flaking, becoming gray-brown, scaly on old trees. Branches short and stout, the upper level or ascending, the lower drooping; twigs orange-brown, usually glabrous. Buds reddish brown, 5–7 mm, apex acute. Leaves 1–2.5 cm, 4-angled in cross section, rigid, light to dark green, bearing stomata on all surfaces, apex blunt-tipped. Seed cones (10–)12–16 cm; scales diamond-shaped, widest near middle, 18–30 × 15–20 mm, stiff, leathery, margin at apex erose to toothed, apex extending 6-10 mm beyond seed-wing impression. 2 n =24 (Taylor 1993, M.P. Frankis, pers. obs. 1999.01.06).

Var. acuminata is distinguished by longer-than-average cones (to 18 cm, the longest of any spruce) with more acute cone scales (Farjon 1990).

Hybrids with P. obovata (P. × fennica) and P. alpestris show pubescent shoots and cones with more rounded scales (M.P. Frankis, pers. obs. 1999.01.06).

Distribution and Ecology

Native to N, C & E Europe outside permafrost areas south to N Greece and W to the Massif Central, France; south of 47° N latitude only in mountains above 400–500 m; ascends to 2200 m in the Balkans (Vidakovic 1991). This area includes: Albania, Austria, Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Norway, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, and Ukraine.

In the NE portion of its range, there is a broad zone of hybridisation with P. obovata (Silba 1986, Vladimir Dinets e-mail 1998.01.02).

Locally naturalized in Europe out of its native range including Britain and the Pyrenees Mts., and in the north-central United States (and adjacent Canada) (Taylor 1993). Hardy to Zone 4 (cold hardiness limit between -34.3°C and -28.9°C) (Bannister and Neuner 2001); var. acuminata, Zone 6).

Big tree

Within most of the species' range, 100 cm dbh is quite a large specimen, partly because of the general rarity of old trees; outside of the northern forests, old forest is quite rare in Europe. The largest specimen of which I have received report is 214 cm dbh (1.3 m above ground), albeit tapering rapidly above that height (160 cm at 2.2 m), and is 56.2 m tall. The height of this tree is not recorded. It grows in the forest of Biogradska Gora National Park, Montenegro (full report and photographs: Räsänen 2008 and email, 2013.02.25). Mr. Räsänen (email 2010.12.25) states that "P. abies of 100 cm dbh are common in the old-growth remnants of the mountains of southern and central Europe. Picea abies and Abies alba are usually the largest trees, the former often having larger dbh, but the latter having larger volume due to slower stem taper." There is also record of a tree 153 cm dbh and 45 m tall from the Bagni di Mezzo, Trentino Alto, San Pancrazi, BZ, Italy (Corpo Forestale della Stato, a listing of big trees in Italy). The largest cultivated tree of which I have record is 147 cm dbh at Lingholm, Cumbria, UK (Mitchell et al. 1990).

The tallest specimen that has been reported using accurate measurement technique (tape drop or laser survey) is 62.26 m tall (above mid-slope) and 115 cm dbh (above top-slope). It is the Sgerm Spruce (Sgermova smreka) in Ribnica na Pohorju, west of Maribor, Slovenia, on private land Cthe Sgerm farm). It is estimated to be 250 years old, based on a ring count of a fallen nearby tree of similar size, and has been measured repeatedly using professional methods (including theodolite, laser, and direct tape drop); it was 51 m in 1938, 57.5 m in 1980, and 61.7 m in 1995 (Räsänen 2012). The second-tallest specimen is 59.2 m tall. This well-known tree is in Sächsische Schweiz National Park, Germany. The same park contains a number of other trees measured at over 50 m tall (Räsänen 2010).


Tree LBG in the Bavarian Forest of Germany had a crossdated age of 468 years. It was collected by R. Wilson (RMTRR 2006).

In 2008, the popular media widely distributed news of a 9,550-year-old specimen of P. abies found in Sweden. The authors of the study, Leif Kullman and Lisa Öberg, actually asserted that they had found a clone that was as much as 9,550 years old, and this was not so astonishing; a variety of Picea species have been shown to reproduce by layering in habitat, and in fact clones of considerable age have been found at least in Picea engelmannii (Marr [1977]; at the alpine treeline on Niwot Ridge, Colorado) and Picea mariana (Légère and Payette [1981]; at the arctic treeline on the Ungava Peninsula, Quebec), and some tree clones have been found of even greater antiquity, as in the case of the Utah aspen (Populus tremuloides) clone shown to be at least tens of thousands of years old (DeWoody et al. 2008). No one had previously claimed to have found a Picea clone of such antiquity, but if anyone had done so, Kullman was a good candidate; he has a very long publication record on the subject of trees growing at their arctic and alpine limits. Kullman and Öberg's work was published in Kullman (2009) and in Kullman and Öberg (2009), and in several subsequent papers. However, Mackenthun (2016) critically examined Kullman and Öberg's analyses and found (a) no evidence of genetic continuity between dead wood remains discovered beneath the allegedly 9550-year-old tree and the living tree itself, and (b) no evidence of a clonal origin of the tree. The problems of finding clones of great age and inferring their continuity are substantial. When we look at arctic treelines around the world, we find that they sometimes experience primarily clonal reproduction (where the treeline species are capable of it), and sometimes sexual reproduction. The null hypothesis would be that sexual reproduction is episodic over time, occurring during climatic warm intervals that favor complete cone and seed development, with reversions to clonal reproduction during less favorable periods. Therefore, absent evidence to the contrary, the Swedish trees do not represent a 9,000-year-old clone, and the oldest clonal age in this species remains unknown.


This is probably one of the most widely used tree species in the field. A 2016 literature search found studies of changing climate (using ring-width, x-ray, and stable isotope data), forest age structure, decay rates in dead wood, air pollution effects, wide-area forest productivity, ecophysiology, radionuclide sequestration, archeology of old buildings, interspecific competition, the structure of Stradivarius' violins, and many other diverse topics.


A timber tree of major economic importance throughout the cool temperate areas of Europe. The commonest tree used for Christmas trees in Britain, despite its poor suitability for this purpose, with the leaves soon shed as it dries out. A herbal tea can be made from the leafy twigs and is reputed to have various curative powers, not tested medicinally.

This is the most widely used horticultural spruce in North America; many cultivars exist, including dwarf shrubs (Taylor 1993). Three times (as of 2017) it has served as the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree.



Picea abies is the most climatically tolerant species in the genus, happy in cultivation in both extreme oceanic NW Scotland and central continental Wisconsin. This might be a legacy of adaptation to rapidly fluctuating climates in Europe during the Ice Ages (and now, for that matter).


DeWoody, J., C. A. Rowe, V. D. Hipkins, and K. E. Mock. 2008. Pando lives – molecular genetic evidence of a giant aspen clone in central Utah. Western North American Naturalist 68: 493–497. doi: 10.3398/1527-0904-68.4.493.

Farjon, Aljos. 1990. Pinaceae: drawings and descriptions of the genera Abies, Cedrus, Pseudolarix, Keteleeria, Nothotsuga, Tsuga, Cathaya, Pseudotsuga, Larix and Picea. Königstein: Koeltz Scientific Books.

Frankis, M. P. 1992. Picea. Pp. 570-573 in A. Huxley, M. Griffiths and M. Levy (eds.), The New RHS Dictionary of Gardening, volume 3. Grove's Dictionaries.

Holeksa, J., M. Saniga, J. Szwagrzyk, M. Czerniak, K. Staszyńska and P. Kapusta. 2009. A giant tree stand in the West Carpathians—An exception or a relic of formerly widespread mountain European forests? Forest Ecology and Management 257: 1577–1585.

Kullman, L. 2009. Fjällens evighetsgranar – Svensk naturhistoria i nytt ljus. [Eternal spruces of the fjäll – Swedish natural history in new light]. Svensk Botanisk Tidskrift 103: 141–148.

Kullman, L. and L. Öberg. 2009. Post-little ice age tree line rise and climate warming in the Swedish Scandes. A landscape ecological perspective. Journal of Ecology 97:415–429. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2745.2009.01488.x

Légère, A., and S. Payette. 1981. Ecology of a black spruce (Picea mariana) clonal population in the hemiarctic zone, northern Quebec: population dynamics and spatial development. Arctic and Alpine Research 13(3):261–276.

Leibundgut, H. 1982. Europäische Urwälder der Bergstufe. Verlag Paul Haupt, Bern, Stuttgart.

Mackenthun, G. 2016. The world's oldest living tree discovered in Sweden? A critical review. New Journal of Botany 5(3), DOI 10.1080/20423489.2015.1123967.

Marr, J. W. 1977. The development and movement of tree islands near the upper limit of tree growth in the southern Rocky Mountains. Ecology 58:1159–1164.

Räsänen, K. 2008.12.21. Big Norway Spruces., accessed 2010.12.27

Räsänen, K. 2010.08.23. Tall trees in Sächsische Schweiz National Park, Germany., accessed 2010.12.27.

Räsänen, K. 2012.10.27. The Sgerm Spruce – the tallest native European tree?, accessed 2012.11.04.

This page co-edited with M.P. Frankis, 1999.01.

See also

The FEIS database.

Last Modified 2018-01-20