In recent years I have noticed the increased presence of the Serbian Spruce, Picea omorika, as a small, potted Christmas tree. Its naturally narrow, pyramidal shape with short branches suits the space limitations of the modern British home. The tree is noted for its flattened needles which are an unusual characteristic in a European conifer. Upswept branches create a silvery sheen via two broad white bands on the undersides of needles. However, the tree does not take heavy Christmas baubles well. In its natural habitat, the Serbian Spruce is accustomed to heavy winter snowfalls and snow cover for 4-5 months. Its narrow shape and readily drooping branches are designed to shed snow rather than to display ornaments.
I was initially horrified to discover in my research that an endangered tree is being used as a throwaway Christmas tree (even if it only appears to be sold in pots and never as a cut tree). The European Red List reveals concerns about its extent of occurrence and occupancy. The Serbian Spruce is only recorded as a native tree in fragmented stands in a total area of just 4km2 at 5 locations along the Drina Valley in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The trees grow on steep, north and north-west facing mountain sides in cool, temperate, mixed forests.
The majority of the trees are to be found in Serbia’s Tara National Park. Thankfully, the Serbian Spruce has protected status in both its native countries. However, this tree that survived the last Ice Age in numbers has dramatically declined since the 19th century. Its existence is threatened by the combined threats of poor regeneration, wildfires, forest clearing, livestock grazing and climate change. It does not compete well with surrounding broadleaf trees. Thus, the Serbian Spruce is increasingly out-of-place in its native environment. Dieback in climate change-related droughts has already been observed. Further hot, dry summers are only likely to worsen the situation in future.
The Serbian Spruce was a surprisingly late discovery for a European conifer. It was only identified in 1875. Up until then it had been misidentified as other species. That situation changed when it came to the attention of the Serbian botanist Josif Pančić. He collected seeds and shared them. The first seed recipient was Froebel of Zurich in 1881. Kew received seeds in 1889. Some 19th-century tree plantings still exist in the UK today.
The International Conifer Conservation Programme has led seed collections from the native Serbian Spruce range. The programme runs in a collaboration between the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh and Bedgebury National Arboretum in Kent. The Millennium Seed Bank at Kew’s Wakehurst Place is also storing vital seeds for posterity.
Although the Serbian Spruce may be rendered homeless in its native environment due to climate change, foresters are ironically considering it as a good prospect for climate change in the UK. It is not regarded as a primary tree, but is considered a good prospect as a secondary tree in mixed woodland. Norway and Sitka Spruce are preferred as faster-growing forestry species, however, they are not as drought-resistant. Serbian Spruce also has an ability to grow in a wide range of soil types, good pest and disease resistance, excellent pollution tolerance as an urban tree and good quality wood. Meanwhile, in horticulture, it is prized as an attractive ornamental conifer, although remarkably it does not have such a narrow stature here.
I remain uncertain if an endangered tree should be used as a disposable Christmas tree, however, I suppose that its increased cultivation could turn out to be positive. The drawback of potted Christmas trees is that they generally do not survive for many years. A Picea species is more likely to survive due to its shallower roots by comparison with the more popular Nordmann Fir. The increased attention for the Serbian Spruce could turn out to be beneficial for its future survival. After all, it is customary to take extra care of the homeless at Christmas. This immigrant may one day have no sustainable home in its native land.
© Karen Andrews
Previous Christmas Tree Blogs
References and Further Reading
- Ballian, D. & Ravazzi, C. & Caudullo, G. (2016): European Atlas of Forest Tree Species. Publ. Office EU, Luxembourg.
- EUFORGEN (2022): Picea omorika, Serbian Spruce. European Forest Genetic Resources Programme.
- Forest Research (2022): Serbian spruce (OMS). Picea omorika. Tree species database.
- Frederike (?): Potted Christmas Tree: a sustainable alternative? Plantura magazine.
- Gardner, Martin (2019): Species Profile: Serbian Spruce, Picea omorika. European Red List of Trees. p.27. IUCN. Cambridge & Brussels.
- International Dendrology Society (2022?): Picea omorika (Pančić) Purkynĕ. Trees and Shrubs Online.
- Mataruga, M. et al. (2019). Picea omorika, from the website: Threatened Conifers of the World via Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
- Missouri Botanical Garden (2022?): Picea omorika. Plant Finder.
- Savill, Peter et al. (2017): Alternative Spruces to Sitka and Norway. Part 1 Serbian Spruce (Picea omorika). Species Profile. Quarterly Journal of Forestry, Vol III, No. 1. January 2017. pp. 32-39. The Royal Forestry Society.
Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.