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Abies koreana (photo courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.)
Abies koreana (photo courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.)

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Evergreen, Trees

In nature, firs are tall, erect, symmetrical trees with uniformly spaced branch whorls. Though sometimes confused with spruces (Picea), they have softer needles that fall directly from the stems (spruces leave short pegs behind), and their large cones grow up rather than down. Cones shatter after ripening, leaving a spiky stalk. Most are high-mountain plants that do best in or near their natural environments. They grow slowly if at all in hot, dry, windy areas at low elevations, though firs from some other parts of the world do well in warm, dry climates.

Christmas tree farms grow native firs for cutting, and nurseries in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California grow a few species for the living Christmas tree trade. Licensed collectors in the Northwest dig picturesque, contorted firs at high elevations near the timberline and market them through nurseries as “alpine conifers.” Use these in rock gardens; small specimens are good container or bonsai subjects. Birds are attracted by fir seeds. New growth on firs is susceptible to aphid damage.

Allow ample growing room at planting. Trying to restrict a fir tree’s size by pruning usually ruins its naturally attractive shape. Pruning is rarely necessary; plants are more attractive with branches all the way to the ground.

Abies amabilis

Native to southern Alaska south through the Coast Ranges and Cascades of Washington and Oregon. Grows 20–50 ft. tall and 12–15 ft. wide in gardens, much larger in the wild. Dark green needles, silvery beneath, curve upward along the branches. ‘Spreading Star’, a prostrate form, creates a thick, lush mat to 3 ft. high, 6 ft. wide, with minimal pruning.

Abies balsamea

Native to eastern North American mountains. Dwarf ‘Nana’ is the form most commonly sold in the West. Perfect for rock gardens; very slowly forms a dense, dark green cushion 2–3 ft. tall and wide. Needs partial shade and regular water.

Abies concolor ‘Candicans’ (photo courtesy of Jim McCausland)
Abies concolor ‘Candicans’ (photo courtesy of Jim McCausland)

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Abies concolor

Native to the mountains of southern Oregon, California, southern Rocky Mountains, Baja California. A popular Christmas tree and one of the most commonly grown native firs in Western gardens. Large, symmetrical tree reaches 80–120 ft. tall and 15–20 ft. wide in its native range and in the Northwest. Slower growing in California gardens, where it has reached 30 ft. in as many years in lowland areas. Best as a container plant in Southern California. Bluish green needles. Needs no irrigation where native; some elsewhere. Some consider ‘Candicans’, with bluish white foliage, the “bluest” of all conifers.

Abies grandis (photo courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens)
Abies grandis (photo courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens)

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Abies grandis

Native from British Columbia inland to Montana and southward to coastal Northern California. Many Northwest gardeners live and garden successfully under this fast-growing tree; they just prune it high. One of the largest firs, it grows to 300 ft. tall in the wild (in gardens, it reaches 80–200 ft. tall and 15–25 ft. wide). Fragrant, deep green needles are glossy above, with white lines beneath; they grow in two rows along branches. ‘Johnsonii’ is suited to urban gardens, growing to 65 ft. tall and 10 ft. wide.

Abies koreana (photo courtesy of Jim McCausland)
Abies koreana (photo courtesy of Jim McCausland)

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Abies koreana

Native to Korea. Grows slowly to 30 ft. tall, 20 ft. wide, often much less. The white backs of the needles show beautifully from below, and contrast well with their green tops. This is especially true of the form with strongly curved needles. The prize feature of this tree is its purplish-blue cones, whose contrasting green bracts poke out in spirals from the bottom of the cone to the top. Cones seem to come on strong in alternate years.

Abies lasiocarpa

Native to Alaska, south through the high Cascades of Washington and Oregon; nearly throughout the Rocky Mountains. In the wild in good, moist soil, it is a narrow, steeple-shaped tree 60–90 ft. tall and 10 ft. wide. In gardens, usually grows much shorter and loses its narrow shape; allow for 15–20-ft. spread in Northwest. Extremely slow growing in California gardens. Bluish green, 1–1 1/2-in.-long needles.

Abies lasiocarpa arizonica

Thick, corky, creamy white bark gives the tree its common name, “cork fir.” Blue, often silvery needles. Very handsome as a youngster; good bonsai. Excellent substitute for blue spruce (Picea pungens) in smaller spaces, and more disease free.

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