The Gifts of the Spruce


 

Spruce gum used to be big business in the North Woods. In fact, work as a “gummer” could pay more in a day than laboring as a lumberjack. These savvy folks would cruise through the forest with chisel-like tools on long poles, breaking off hardened chunks of spruce resin and gathering them in sacks. New, soft (i.e. sticky) resin is no good – it has to harden for several years before it becomes valuable for chewing. Unless you want to glue your lips together.

We have a number of stands of red spruces (Picea rubens) we frequent to gather spruce gum. In one of those, a large tree several feet in diameter and about 80 feet tall was recently toppled during an early-winter snowstorm. This tree had developed a crack some time ago that became a ready source of resin, but the crack began creeping up the trunk and down into one of the root buttresses. During windstorms, we could stand by and watch the split creep open and closed a fraction of an inch as the crown swayed. It was only a matter of time.

Spruce gum was traditionally valued not only for chewing while strolling through the woods, but for medicinal use as well (not to mention its effectiveness as an adhesive). It was added to cough syrups and lozenges, and contains terpenes and other compounds that are valuable as antivirals (among other virtues). It is incredibly easy to gather – you can break it off with just your fingers if the dried nodule is large enough; otherwise, a sharp tool like a knife or axe makes it a breeze. There are many ways to clarify the gum and make it more homogenous, but it was often simply just chewed as it came off the tree. The spruce-gum industry faded with the advent of chicle-based gums in the late-19th century, as well as the transition of forestry from a primary focus on lumber to pulp logs for the paper mills. Spruce trees provided ideal material for both industries.

The gum might be called an acquired taste, especially for those accustomed to the sweet, soft, petroleum-based candy sold today. It starts out hard and crunchy, with a distinct and almost unpleasant pine taste. But it soon takes on a sweetness and pleasant texture and can be chewed for hours. My kids love it – but a word of warning: We try to steer clear of white spruce (Picea glauca). It’s called “cat spruce” or “skunk spruce” for good reason.

When spring arrives, the spruce will offer new gifts, such as roots for cordage and binding (more on gathering spruce root can be found in our Apprenticeship: Greenwood video) and new growth tips for making spruce beer. But more on that later – winter is here to enjoy!

-Mike