The journey of a special spruce: From the mountains to the U.S. Capitol

blue sky and trees
A tree climber’s view. Forest Service photo by Preston Durham.

Is that a Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel? No, It’s just a USDA Forest Service tree climber at the top of 70-foot-tall red spruce. In July, I climbed candidate Capitol Christmas trees in the National Forests in North Carolina with my colleagues Andy Whittier and Paul Valento of Superior National Forest.

Every year a national forest provides a Christmas tree that will be displayed on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. This year, Pisgah National Forest zone silviculturist Rachael Dickson, timber sale administrator Matt Eldridge, and wildlife biologist Tara Anderson were tasked with finding a tree worthy of such a prestigious position.

The tree must be 60 to 80 feet tall, have a full symmetrical canopy, and perhaps most importantly, not be home to the endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel.

Carolina northern flying squirrels are only known to occur on 13 high elevation mountain peaks in Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. The squirrels require spruce-fir forests, which are extremely rare in the South – they only grow on mountain peaks more than a mile high.

Red spruce (Picea rubens) was a dominant species on these mountain peaks until the early 20th century. Today, however, only about 5% remains.

Through the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative, the Forest Service works with partners to plant red spruce seedlings and restore these unique forests. In addition, researchers are investigating red spruce genetics and how the species is genetically adapted to its environment.

two people wearing helmets
Rachael Dickson (left) and Preston Durham (right). Forest Service photo by Rachael Dickson.

Other rare species such as the endangered spruce-fir moss spider, the northern saw-whet owl, black-capped chickadee, and several salamanders also rely on spruce-fir forests.

To ensure that no squirrels would be harmed in the removal of the Capitol Christmas Tree, we surveyed nine candidate red spruce trees for any sign of nests. To safeguard against tree damage, we used cambium savers and climbing techniques such as three point climbing with lanyards and single rope systems.

Operations went off without a hitch, and none of the candidate trees had signs of squirrel nests. The Capitol Christmas Tree – dubbed Ruby – was selected by a landscape architect and will be removed in early November. It will make several stops on its way north to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., where it will remain throughout the holiday season.

Learn more about the U.S. Capitol Christmas TreeFind the latest publications by SRS scientists.