Utah Native Plant Society

The posts contained herein are intended to be informational, and any opinions expressed are mine alone.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

In memoriam: the “Utah” Blue Spruce (1933-2014)

Utah's state tree was the Blue Spruce, Picea pungens, from 1933 to 2014. By statute it was referred to as the Blue Spruce and that is one of its common names.

Because of the reference to our state tree as the “Colorado” Blue Spruce in 4th grade elementary school text books, some often misguided efforts have been made to change our state tree (which instead should have involved some changes to the text books). The latest of these efforts succeeded in early 2014 when Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed a bill to change the state's tree to the also beautiful Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides).

This was done however to a large degree out of ignorance.

A similar effort was made in 2008 when a 4th grade class pushed to instead make the “Utah” Juniper the state tree.

Colorado also designated the Blue Spruce as its state tree but not until 1939, more than five years after Utah's designation.

Essentially our text books were wrong in referring to the tree as only the “Colorado” Blue Spruce and should have instead educated school children (and future legislators) that plants have all sorts of common names, and that the Blue Spruce is a Utah native tree. The “Utah” Juniper is also not limited in distribution to Utah.

While it is true that the Blue Spruce occurs to a greater degree in Colorado than Utah and that its type locality was named from a plant collected in Colorado, this does mean it is more of a Colorado than a Utah tree. In fact the Quaking Aspen has a type locality that is uncertain and is believed to be in Canada. And, ironically, the aspen tree is certainly equally, if not more, iconic of Colorado than Utah. And the Quaking Aspen has a much more extensive distribution throughout much of North America compared to the more narrowly distributed Blue Spruce limited to the western United States.

Central Utah's extensive aspen stand dubbed Pando is thought to be the largest living organism on the planet. Each connected plant is genetically identical (clones). Somehow the idea of this interconnectedness was thought to represent a symbol of Utah's reproductive prolificness, its connectedness in general, and the ability of everyone to work together collectively. Unless we consider ourselves to be genetically identical clones and have the common goal of overpopulation, this symbology is questionable. And in another ironic twist, Pando is thought to be dying from the effects of climate change; yet our state (and federal) legislators largely “do not believe” that global warming is occurring.

Did Utah want to turn over a new leaf (the analogy used in Herbert's 2014 State of the State address) by designating a state tree the most famous member of which is dying from climate change? Is this not instead symbolic of a state that frequently fails to use science and facts in its decision-making process?

An unfortunate additional aspect of designating higher elevation trees is that it then also tends to lead to the less than responsible placement of these trees in our lower elevation landscapes. Most Utahns do not live at elevations appropriate to where these trees grow. Appropriate habitat and aspect including things such as sun exposure, water, soil, and elevation are all critical consideration in determining what to plan and where. All too often Quaking Aspen (and Blue Spruce) are planted in completely inappropriate and nonsensical places where they often look sickly (for example, along the Wasatch Front at elevations less than 5,000 feet).

Blue Spruce needles

Blue Spruce planted at the University of Utah

More information:

Some additional background with respect to Utah Native Plant Society and some individual actions that took  place in the second half of 2013 when we first learned about the proposed bill as well as in early 2014:

A tremendous amount of misinformation occurred with respect to this issue as result of this bill's proposal.  If Utah wanted to change its state tree, that was fine, but it should have been  done for the right reasons and not based on a long list of misunderstandings.  Contacts were accordingly attempted with the bill's sponsors to which there was no response whatsoever in the fall of 2013 (as well as with the governor's environmental advisor at around the same time in the fall of 2013 who seemed to appreciate the information but we suspect never took the issue up with the governor and/or otherwise ignored it). Salt Lake area House Rep. Carol Spackman Moss did listen, but the bill came up for a vote before she could do much other than voice some of the concerns. The bill did not pass unanimously in the House (there were 19 votes against) as it had in the Senate.

Trib article by Kristen Rogers-Iversen published October 2, 2010:

I only recently became aware of the article “How a Colorado spruce became Utah 's state tree” which discusses some of the history (some I knew but some I didn't) and how in 1919 there was the first attempt to designate the Blue Spruce.  See:

(Note the reference to "unclean" and "undesirable" tree with respect to potential Box Elder tree designation discussions.  That is such a typical and incorrect reaction to the use of many native trees.  Native trees are no more trashy than other trees.)

I knew about the attempt to designate the “Utah” juniper as Utah's state tree that had been made in 2008, but did not know that it was the Utah Cattlemen Association that rose up against its designation. That is not surprising, but that was a rather ridiculously ignorant action on their part since designation of a state tree gives it no protection whatsoever (just like the designation of the Sego Lily, Calochortus nuttallii, has afforded it no protection and its lower elevation habitat along the Wasatch Front  has been largely eliminated; neither state trees nor state flowers nor even state cooking pots are protected from anything). And the juniper would have been a much more logical and iconic choice.

Strange and weird factoid:

Did you know that a syrup is made from Blue Spruce?

(Quaking Aspen does not stand a change of competing in the syrup marketplace!)

Misleading and at least partially incorrect or incomplete articles:

This recent Pioneer.utah.gov page about Utah's state tree does indeed contain some information of value, but also gives a very skewed account of the aspen designation and is not an unbiased nor completely accurate account:


And, this Colorado State University extension article:

indicates in one place that Picea engelmanni was our state tree.  That is wrong.  I have written to them to ask them to fix that article as there is enough confusion about this already.  Also the reference there to Picea pungensglauca” is not really correct and should been written differently. It is not taxonomically recognized in that fashion. The author is referring to the cultivar "glauca" and should have used “forma” or some other designation and further should not have indicated that "glauca" is the "true" Blue Spruce.  The Colorado state tree is designated simply as Picea pungens which can be green and not just blue.   Plants, like people, can have variable characteristics.

Helpful USU extension articles about the Quaking Aspen and the Blue Spruce:

Quaking Aspen:

Note the comment: "Over-planted in Utah."   Indeed.

And “ . . . aspen does not like the heat and dry conditions in our lower valleys. Stressed aspens suffer from leaf scorch, leaf spot, borers, cankers, galls, occasionally iron chlorosis, and many other problems. Best grown in cooler high-mountain climates that it is used to. “   

Blue Spruce:

Note the comment: “This is a very good tree, but it is over-used in many areas."   Also very true.

Aspen and climate change:

There are many references to this topic and SAD (Sudden Aspen Decline).

A good overall story that provides some helpful information is the Smithsonian article "What's Killing the Aspen?  The signature tree of the Rockies is in trouble"  by Michelle Nijhuis published in December 2008.


Example of a journal article on the subject:

Rehfeldt GE, Ferguson DE, Crookston NL. 2009. Aspen, climate, and sudden decline in western USA. For. Ecol. Manage. 258(11): 2353-2364 CrossRef.


Quaking Aspen - Utah's state tree as of March 26, 2014

1 comment: