White Spruce Cone Production and Seed Viability

By Sarah Stehn and Carl Roland (last updated April, 2016)
two researchers use binoculars to count spruce cones
Figure 1. Botany interns use binoculars to count white spruce cones on forest trees.

NPS Photo / Sarah Stehn

White spruce seeds are an important food source for some of Denali’s most charismatic forest inhabitants - red squirrels, spruce grouse, white-winged crossbills, chickadees, and pine grosbeaks. Every year since 1992, botany program staff has carefully observed trends in white spruce (Picea glauca) reproduction both at treeline and in lower elevation forest of the Rock Creek drainage near Park Headquarters in Denali’s oldest continuously monitored vegetation plots.

a seed trap sits amidst moss and small shrubs
Figure 2. A seed trap awaits for white spruce cone and seedfall. Traps are set out at the end of summer, and retrieved for seed counting in the spring.

NPS Photo / Sarah Stehn

For each of 30 monitored trees, staff document yearly growth by measuring tree diameter and estimate overall cone production by counting cones produced in the current year (Figure 1). For each of 6 plots (3 replicates at treeline and 3 in the forest), staff track seed production by setting out six 1 m2 sampling frames to capture and count seedfall (Figure 2),  and seed viability by taking captured seeds (Figure 3) into the lab to undergo germination trials. Data collected is compared to local and regional climatic trends to aid our understanding of what factors contribute to high or low white spruce seed production, and thus the variability we might expect in this important food source. Additionally, data collected provides insight as to the reproduction potential of this ecosystem defining species at critical landscape positions such as treeline.

a white spruce seed
Figure 3. White spruce seeds are quite small, but attached to a large wing. a dissecting microscope is used to confirm their identity as they are sorted for seed germination trails, enacted to test seed viability each year.

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.

graph showing 1998 had the highest average number of cones per tree
Figure 4. Annual cone production of white spruce trees in the Rock Creek drainage. Data points represent the average cone production among 15 trees at 3 sites each in the forest or treeline. Error bars show the standard deviation between trees.

2015-2016 Update
Very few cones were produced in 2015, as the trees recover their energy stores from 2013, one of the highest cone production years in the Rock Creek drainage since 1992 (Figure 4). 1998 and 2000 remain the highest production years. Monitoring of the Rock Creek plots will continue in 2016, adding to one of the longest-term records of white spruce seed production and viability in Alaska.

More Information
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.