Deep in the Pisgah National Forest just southwest of Asheville, N.C., stands a magnificent tree tucked away from the human hustle. For nearly a century she’s held vigil over her community of steadfast, slow-growing, photosynthesizing friends, as well as innumerable furry creatures, birds and insects. Her roots are a tangled and magical network transmitting an ancient underground language we will never hear. Soon, she will leave her home and journey to our nation’s capital. There, dressed in finery and twinkling lights, she will herald the beginning of the holiday season. As eyes across the nation focus on her majesty and grandeur, it’s our job here at Southern Highlands Reserve to tell her story — who she is, where she came from and what she means to our region.
Each year, the federal government chooses a tree from a different state to be “The People’s Tree,” which stands on the West Lawn of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. This year, the tree is a red spruce from North Carolina. Her name is Ruby (short for the red spruce scientific name, Picea rubens), and she is a foundational member of the high-elevation spruce-fir forests visible all along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“This is an incredible opportunity to shine a national spotlight on the importance of red spruce and the role they play in one of the rarest ecosystems in the United States,” said Kelly Holdbrooks, executive director of Southern Highlands Reserve. “High-elevation spruce-fir forests support so many plant and animal species, and they are the backbone for ecotourism in our region.”
Stranded after the thaw of the most recent ice age, these forests are home to two federally endangered species, the Carolina northern flying squirrel and the spruce-fir moss spider, which is the world’s smallest tarantula. Also living there are the northern saw-whet owl, red crossbill, brown creeper, black-capped chickadee, hoary bat, silver-haired bat, Weller’s salamander, pygmy salamanders and a type of lichen called hot dots. The U.S. Forest Service has identified sixteen rare plant species found only in spruce-fir forests. As warming temperatures push more species northward and to higher elevations, red spruce matrons like Ruby will provide refuge beneath their canopy.
Unsustainable logging and subsequent wildfires from 1880 to 1930 decimated high-elevation spruce-fir forests, and they’ve never recovered. They attempt to regenerate on their own, but new saplings are crushed by fall leaf drop each year. Now, a century later, climate change is another dire threat to their survival. But Southern Highlands Reserve is working in partnership with the federal government to make sure these forests do not disappear. We’ve embarked upon the epic task of raising 50,000 new red spruce from seed to be planted on public lands in North Carolina, Eastern Tennessee and Virginia. Nearly 5,000 of our trees are already planted there, and 1,000 more are currently on their way home to Virginia.
Red spruce are notoriously slow-growing and temperamental, but our nursery — at an elevation of 4,500 feet — perfectly mimics their natural climate and conditions. We harvest seeds, propagate them and nurture saplings for at least 18 months while they develop a robust root system and grow into young trees strong enough to survive leaf drop. Then we gather volunteers from across the region to take them to their new home. Our trees’ survival rate for restoration projects is an unprecedented 90 percent.
SHR is a foundational member of the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative, formed in 2015 to spearhead restoration efforts and resources. SHR has worked to build partnerships across state and sector lines over the last decade. This is a new path for environmental stewardship. Historically, like-minded organizations must compete against one another for funding and access. This new model, based on networking and uniting entities through personal relationships, allows state and national government agency leaders, colleges and universities, citizen scientists and other nonprofits to work together to preserve and protect the spruce-fir ecosystem. By emulating trees and plants and their underground networks for communication and resource sharing, we can save rare and imperiled ecosystems and species.
In November, Holdbrooks and SHR Director of Horticulture Eric Kimbrel will accompany Ruby on her journey from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., and witness her debut as the 2022 U.S. Capitol Christmas tree. She will stand as a festive symbol of tradition and goodwill, but she represents more than holiday cheer. She carries an essential life force that provides our most basic and most necessary natural resource, clean air, for free. The secret to abundant life, to relationships that benefit us all, to beauty and survival and harmony all lies within Ruby. She is a reminder of the importance of forest restoration and the delicate balance intertwining all species. As she stands beautifully wrapped in holiday lights, her journey can help all those she leaves behind in the forest.
Learn more about the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree project here.