BC History recounts the amazing story of a proud, majestic and beautiful tree, the Golden Spruce – Picea sitchensis ‘Aurea’. Growing on Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands), its fame extended internationally, with people coming to view it from many parts of the world until this 300-year-old unique tree was cut down in 1997.

Scrawny in size, but immense in history, the little tree described in the article below, is now living in the Gardens at the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific (HCP) where it moved in October 2017. It is a direct descendant of that famous tree, grafted from a branch of the original Golden Spruce, onto Sitka Spruce rootstock (which is the green vertical branch that you see).

Because this tree was grafted from a lower branch of the original tree, it lacks the hormone needed to make one branch turn upwards to form a dominant vertical “leader”. Therefore, it can only form a bush, rather than the typical triangular shape of normal trees. The lack of chlorophyll (green) in the golden needles means that they sunburn easily and then some can drop off. This is why it needs to grow in a shaded spot. To our knowledge, this is the oldest surviving direct descendant of the original tree, but all others are the same shape as this tree, resembling a bush.

The full story of the original Golden Spruce can be read in the national bestselling book, available in the HCP Giftshop: The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed By John Vaillant

The DVD, “Hadwin’s Judgement” is a movie about the sad story of the events that led up to the cutting down of this magnificent tree, and is available to view or borrow for HCP members.

The following story is one dictated by Jim Kinghorn, the propagator of this tree, to his daughter in 2013, less than a year before he died. The tree spent most of its life at Jim’s residence in Saanich, and was moved to HCP as a donation to honor this amazing tree and its prominent place in BC History.

A Serpentine Tale
by Jim Kinghorn

“Ed, if that tree isn’t around the next bend, we have to turn back.” Thankfully, just around the corner even though it was 9pm, standing in all its glory was the Golden Spruce.

We were in the Charlottes in May 1964 on an insect survey, staying at the M & B Juskatla Camp south of Port Clements. Ed Harvey and I had set out to get some cuttings from the Golden Spruce, but we didn’t have a boat or any way across the Yakoun River. The road to the logging camp stayed on the south side of the river for about a mile before crossing it. We thought it would be easy to hike from the north end of the bridge, and then down to the tree. But what we didn’t know was that the Yakoun was geologically very old, and flowing on flat land, such rivers wind endlessly in a serpentine fashion. We set out after supper, about 6pm, from the Logging Camp, carrying rucksacks and climbing gear that was borrowed from the high rigger at the logging camp. Before long we were confronted with a patch of windfall strewn across our path that we had to carefully pick our way through lest we fall.

Ed wanted to get cuttings from the Golden Spruce for Ed Lohbrunner, a Victoria horticulturist who collected rare plants. I was also interested in propagating the golden beauty.

After slowly winding our way through the windfall, we started downriver, and it proved to be a slow journey, as the winding river was twice as long as if it had been straight. As we kept going around bends, one after another, we became anxious, knowing that we had to get back through the windfall area before dark, which was about 11pm that May evening.

On and on we traveled, nothing showing at each turn. When I finally saw the Golden Spruce, it was bigger than I thought it would be. It was over four feet in diameter at the stump, and there were no branches on it until thirty feet above the ground. The climbing gear was useless even if we’d had time to tackle that formidable task. At that time we saw branches on the ground. They had probably been shot at and partially broken off, or hung up in the tree, but now they had blown down. The foliage seemed quite fresh and was our only chance of success. They might have been shot at by Wally Pearson, a forester at Alliford Bay at the request of Oscar Sikloi, a silviculture professor at UBC who was constantly on the lookout for genetic oddities.

So we cut samples and put them in our rucksacks and high-tailed it out of there. We just managed to get through the windfall when dark settled in.

I kept the branches I’d collected and as soon as I got home, grafted some cuttings to Sitka Spruce that we had in the greenhouse at the Victoria Burnside Lab. The provenance of the rootstock is not known except that they were Sitka Spruce. I made veneer grafts on about a dozen seedlings, and then took them home to be tended next to my wife’s vegetable garden where I knew they would get good care and watering. Gradually over the next few years, all but one failed. This one graft I took back over to Burnside Greenhouses where I thought it would get good care, but after two years brought it back home again, all the while maintaining one green branch of the original root stock. By this time it was the late 1960s. The graft remained alive but had a tendency to loose most of its leaves as each season progressed. It was years before enough leaves remained to do anything further towards propagating. To this day, if the graft foliage is not protected by shade, some of the leaves turn a yellowish green and many drop off.

Retaining the green foliage of the rootstock would keep the tree alive, so after 48 years, my contribution has been to save the Golden Spruce foliage from dying. The total size of the plant is only four feet in height and no branch has turned upwards assuming apical dominance, so it has ended up looking like a shrub, not a tree.

My hope is that someone will undertake this paltry but living specimen and strike further grafts from it and then with new material, the puzzle of how to achieve apical dominance might be solved. The job will be challenging and it may not be possible that the horizontal branches may achieve apical dominance, like other specimens as documented in the book, The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant. At least this Golden Spruce may be kept alive with care.

Flying over the Golden Spruce by helicopter in the fall of 1964, I got the pilot to pause over it, so that I could really look at the tree. I could see many grey twigs on the top of the live branches, which I can also observe on my tree. I am not sure if this trait has been reported elsewhere. The original Golden Spruce had golden needles on the upper branches, which were the ones viewed from across the river where most people observed it. However, approximately the bottom thirty feet had NO branches, and about the next 20 feet of the foliage was GREEN! When viewed from across the Yakoun River, this bottom part of the tree was blocked from view by the forest.

Therefore, I am presenting the theory that a single cell mutation could have occurred to give rise to the golden foliage in the upper part of the tree. Furthermore, the tendency for the new golden foliage to drop off was evident on the original Golden Spruce. From the top view, there were all kinds of bare, but not necessarily dead, branches. When foliage on exposed parts of a tree is not staying alive or turning yellowish green, it is a sign that the golden part was very fragile and slow growing.

Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone did a stem analysis of the downed trunk that would show if it was much older than originally believed. A stem analysis would perhaps show rapid growth for 50-100 years, and then show slow growth for a very long time after that. It may be possible to study growth patterns from preserved wood from the stump even now or from the remaining rotting stump.
Finally, I would like to add these thoughts after observing the original Golden Spruce and my cutting of it. The golden color of the original tree was spectacular, but even in the original tree, it tended to lose its spectacular golden color as the growing season progressed. I am sure that there must have been some local people who could attest to that. As the golden needles dropped, the tree was kept alive by some of the shaded under-foliage turned green. Therefore, as a consequence, any cultivar of the original tree will not produce a beautiful nor commercial reproduction of the original.

It is my hope that people will take care of my Golden Spruce and I wish them luck. Any chance of reproducing the original is going to be challenging and may not be successful with the hoped-for results.

The Serpentine River must have caused the twisted mind that lead to the felling of the Golden Spruce. It was a heinous act that served no purpose. Even the Golden Beauty by its very characteristics, continues to thwart attempts to reproduce it.

Jim Kinghorn (1926-2014) resided in Victoria having a career as a Forester and Entomologist with the Canadian Forest Service at the Pacific Forest Research Centre in Victoria. His work was in reforestation research where he was instrumental in the development of the Styroblock for growing seedlings.