Friday, 12 October 2012

I served the King of England resonating spruce


Siberian Spruce, Norway Spruce, the We-are-all-in-this-together (sorry, European) Spruce, Italian Spruce or plain old Common Spruce. At Kew we like to call it Picea abies.

There are Picea abies in Sweden, let's call them Swedish Spruce, thought to be 9,000 year old. Perhaps the oldest trees on Earth.


Many don't last that long however, ending up in guitars, violins, cellos and pianos. The wood from the European Spruce is said to be resonant. It competes with North American Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis), the largest spruce on Earth, for the title of best tonewood on Earth.

I discovered this as I neared the end of Czech writer Bohumil Hrabel's I Served the King of England, in which the hero waiter, Ditie, serves the Emperor of Ethiopia rather than the King of England (but that's another, non-botanical story).

I mentioned a few weeks' back, Lynda and I were in Prague hanging out in the same hotel where Hrabel ate and drank, inspiring me to buy and read this book. I recommend it, and Prague.

Towards the end of the book, Ditie forsakes money and fame, heading towards the final scene where he serves a horse, and goat and a cat in a room decked with mirrors. During his transformation from millionaire to animal waiter, he is shown and embraces a 'resonating spruce'. From other sources I find that the resonance is all to do with the density of annual growth rings, or perhaps the lightness of the wood, or maybe its stiffness.


I'm assuming Ditie's tree is an Italian rather than Czech Spruce. It's still a Picea abies but the most resonant ones grow at 1400 metres above sea level in the north-east end of the Italian Alps (and presumably through into the Czech Republic). The winters are long and cold, and the tree grows slowly and regularly. This, I gather, good for resonance.

That's why many a good musical instrument is made from European Spruce that just happens to grow in a certain part of Italy, or the Czech Republic...


As to my headline, I have to confess that Ditie doesn't serve the King of England Picea abies, but then he doesn't serve the King of England either.

Images: Picea abies in Kew Gardens on the weekend.

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