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.
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.
Himalayan native. Forms a big clump to 4 ft. tall and wide when plants are in flower. Medium green lea...
Shade-tolerant semievergreen native shrub from Europe and western Asia. Grows to 3 ft. tall and wide, ...
This shrub from Korea and Japan resembles H. macrophylla. Grows to 4–6 ft. tall and wid...