Plant 276

Picea omorika (Pancic) Purk. (Pinaceae)

Serbian spruce

Picea omorika is of considerable scientific interest because it is the only European flat-needled spruce, and a relic from the Tertiary epoch. Furthermore, many people consider this spruce to be one of the finest introduced to the United Kingdom.

Omorika is the Serbian word for spruce, and also symbolises slenderness in Bosnian and Serbian folklore. A very distinctive species, the Serbian spruce is notable for its slender and pyramidal habit, with pendant branches that ascend at the tips. Its flattened, bright green needles have silvery undersides, and the upper surface is dark, glossy green. The brown bark of the main trunk cracks into scaly plates. The pendant cones are egg-shaped, tapered at the top and about five centimetres long; the scales are broad and rounded, with jagged margins. Young female cones are violet purple, but become yellowish brown with age.

Occurring in the Serbian mountains, Picea omorika can be found on north-facing slopes at elevations between 300 m and 1700 m above sea level. It is usually mixed with species such as Abies alba, Picea abies and Fagus orientalis.

Anthropogenic factors such as deforestation, pastoralism and wildfires have resulted in the fragmented distribution of this endangered conifer. One of two native spruces to occur in Europe, Picea omorika is now restricted to fewer than five locations. This is primarily as due to poor regeneration and an inability to outcompete associated tree species. In recent times the International Conifer Conservation Program, based at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, has made comprehensive introductions from throughout its natural range, sampling across most populations. Now forming ex situ conservation collections, these young trees have since been widely distributed across the United Kingdom, safeguarded in over fifty host locations.

Outside of its native range, this spruce is of major importance as a specimen tree, and arguably deserves more prominence in commercial and residential landscapes. With an ability to grow on a wide range of soils, including alkaline, clay, acid and sandy soils, it thrives on moist, well-drained loam. Picea omorika was introduced into cultivation in 1881, by the Froebels of Zurich, who received seeds from Josip Pancic, and specifically to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 1889. Trees were originally introduced to Murthly Castle, Perthshire. Since the late nineteenth century, it has been used to great effect in large gardens and collections. Planted in groups of threes or fives, Picea omorika provides great landscape architecture.

Further reading

Farjon A 2008. A natural history of conifers. Timber Press.

Farjon A 2010. A handbook of the world's conifers. Brill.

Farjon A and Filer DF 2013. An atlas of the world's conifers. Brill.

Ben Jones