What makes a fir a fir? Fir the birds? Fir everything there is a season? Fir whom the bell tolls? Fir ever and a day? This tree has been around fir ever. The genus Abies, which is Latin for Silver Fir, is the group that contains the true firs. Many of them are native to the Pacific Northwest and are hardy, evergreen trees. The needles are 1-1 1/2 inches long and flat, not sharp and pokey like some spruces. Another distinguishing feature are the two bright bluish-white stripes that run lengthwise along the underside of most fir needles. Cones grow upright and break apart while still on the tree. One source claims that firs are so familiar in our natural setting that their garden potential is often overlooked. Possibly. Here is a look at some of the fir trees that we commonly have at our local nurseries.
Noble Fir (Abies procera) The Noble Fir is often used as a Christmas tree and is very fragrant. It’s an ornamental tree and well suited for the garden, not growing too quickly. This tree will not tolerate shade, especially when young, and some varieties have a natural blue coloration. The noble fir is the largest of all the world’s Firs. Some are over 300 feet tall!
Subalpine Fir (Abies lasiocarpa) More than any other native conifer, this tree has become a popular landscape addition, and is often used as a specimen tree. It matures at 30 to 50 feet and has a narrow, conical shape. The foliage is stiffly upturned and is a bluish, gray green color. The cones are dark purple and age to a resinous brown.
Grand Fir (Abies grandis) This fir has lustrous, flat needles that grow in two distinct rows that spread horizontally. It is a common understory tree below the Douglas Fir, Ponderosa Pine and Western Larch. Therefore it is shade tolerant, but not as much as the Western Hemlock, Western Red Cedar or Coast Redwood. It’s fast growing, but relatively short-lived (short-lived in tree time is less than 300 years!).
Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) This fir comes from the mountainous region of the Eastern United States. The needles are spirally arranged on the branches and have silvery white stripes underneath. This tree has been used as the official Christmas tree of the President of the United States more than any other tree. It is a fairly small tree, growing slowly up 80 feet high. Fraser fir grows best in a cool, moist climate, in well-drained acidic soil in full sun.
Nordmann Fir (Abies nordmanniana) This tree is from Europe—Turkey, Russia, Armenia. Two subspecies are the Turkish Fir and Caucasian Fir. It has dark green rounded needles and dense foliage, growing up to 60 feet high. The Nordmann Fir needles have no significant scent and are directed forward. It grows best in full sun, is adaptable to varying soil types and has a fast growth rate.
Horstmann’s Silberlocke Fir (Abies koreana) This slow growing fir only reaches 10 feet tall in ten years, with an ultimate height of 20 feet. The striking feature on this tree are the upward curved green needles which reveal the bright silvery-white underneath, giving the foliage continual contrast and illumination. Cones are a steely blue color. This plant was discovered in Germany by Gunter Horstmann.
Cork Fir (Abies lasiocarpa ‘arizonica’) This fir is named for it’s thick, creamy white bark that resembles cork. It has blue needles and can be used as a substitute for Colorado Blue Spruce. Grows best in sun, but will take part shade. Will grow to 15 feet in ten years with a maximum of 40 feet, forming a narrow pyramid.
Douglas Fir (Psuedotsuga menziesii) This one is not really a fir and it’s name means ‘false hemlock’! Where does it belong? With the conifers! Douglas Fir has been an important lumber tree in the Pacific Northwest, yet it has persisted in the suburbs as urbanization has spread. Look around if you live in the PNW and you’ll immediately see one or two….twenty or thirty….it’s just part of the landscape. The best distinguishing feature is the cone which has many three pronged protruding bracts over the surface. The foliage is a dull, lusterless green and the needles are flat or bottlebrush. Seedlings establish easily in a sunny spot and the tree is fast growing, averaging 75 to 125 feet tall at maturity. Sadly, the largest Douglas Firs are gone, cut down by loggers. The groves at Quinault Lake in the Olympics are one of the few old growth forests that remain. The Mineral Tree Southwest of Mt. Rainier was the largest Douglas Fir ever recorded….393 feet! It fell in 1930 and was over 1000 years old. Trees are cool.
Disclaimer…yes, I know Douglas Fir is not a ‘true’ fir, but it needed some friends today, so let’s include it. Maybe it will have it’s very own post someday.
Fir Trees by Heiderose and Andreas FIscher-Nagel 1989
Gardening With Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest by Kruckeberg 1996
Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast by Van Pelt 2001
Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar and Mackinnon 2004