By Sarah Stehn and Carl Roland (last updated June, 2020)
Results from this study indicate that spruce cone production occurs on approximately 3 year cycles, with climate conditions of the preceding years being the deciding factors in both seedfall and seed viability. For example, recent research from these plots suggests that an optimal cone production year will arise after two wet summers and low snow winters (during which reserves for cone growth are stored), followed by a warm and dry early summer (during which cones are initiated), and capped with a wet, cool summer just before seed dispersal (as cone maturation is complete).
However, high cone and seed production does not necessarily mean high seed viability since slightly different climatic factors control success of the two processes. Overall, the long-term mean annual germination percentage is only around 8% in the forest, and 5% at the treeline, indicating that it takes a white spruce tree quite a bit of energy, and perhaps luck, to successfully reproduce.
2020 UpdateSpring of 2020 appears to have been kind to Denali’s flowering plants – including spruce trees! Beginning in mid-May, the lower branches of many spruce were laden with male pollen cones. These cones are bright reddish at first, then elongate and turn yellow as they release their pollen in early June. Beginning in late June, one could observe the development of female seed cones, primarily found on the ends of white spruce’s upper branches. These cones are larger and more elongate (about 2 inches long) than the male cones. They start out light green, and will turn to purplish-brown by fall.
The last notable cone production year occurred in 2016, and cone production occurs in approximately 3 year cycles (Figure 4). As of late June 2020, the number of purplish cones visible indicates that Denali’s spruce are on track for another high cone production year, referred to as a ‘mast year.'
The highest cone production years remain 1998 and 2000, with an average of 390 and 251 cones per tree. Will 2020 top that? Monitoring of the Rock Creek plots will continue in 2020, adding to one of the longest-term records of white spruce seed production and viability in Alaska.
Roland, CR, Schmidt, J, and J. Johnstone. 2014. Climate sensitivity of reproduction in a mast-seeding boreal conifer across its distributional range from lowland to treeline forests. Oecologia 174: 665-677.