Floridata Plant Encyclopedia

A Floridata Plant Profile 909 Abies concolor

Common Names: white fir, Colorado fir Family: Pinaceae (pine Family)

A neatly symmetrical young specimen of white fir.
A beautifully symmetrical young white fir specimen stands guard over a snowy field.

Description

The firs are large, stately conifers with single trunks, whorled branches and very symmetrical cone shaped habits. Firs can be distinguished from other conifers by the combination of flat needles which are whitish beneath, and upright cones which stay on the tree and disintegrate after the seeds have been shed, leaving behind a single spikelike axis for a while. White fir has yellowish green first year branchlets, needles that are bluish green above, and rough, pale gray bark. The needles are about 2 in (5 cm) long with a pair of whitish bands on the underside. They appear to grow in two ranks on the branchlets, resulting in flattened sprays of foliage. The upright cones are cylindrical, about 5 in (13 cm) long and purplish green. White fir can get over 100 ft (30.5 m) tall and its conical spirelike crown becomes more columnar with age. Young trees are usually branched to the base, but large specimens are often devoid of branches for a third of their height. In cultivation, expect white firs to get 40-60 ft (12-18 m) tall. This is a very popular ornamental conifer and quite a few cultivars of varying habits and sizes have been named. 'Argentea' has silvery foliage. The new foliage of 'Aurea' is yellowish. 'Dwarf Globe' has thickly set bluish green needles and grows in a rounded mound just 3 ft (0.9 m) tall. 'Compacta' get about 4 ft (1.2 m) tall and wide and has beautiful grayish foliage. 'Pendula' has weeping branches. 'Fastigiata' is tall and narrow with erect branches. 'Violacea' has bright glaucus bluish white foliage. 'Wintergold' has foliage that turns yellow in winter.

white fir foliage
White fir foliage is typically blue-green to silvery gray but green and yellow-green cultivars are also available from specialty nurseries.

Location

White fir is native to high elevations in the mountains of Oregon and California and also to the Rocky Mountains from Idaho through Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. They generally grow at elevations from 3000 to 9000 ft (914 to 2743 m) above sea level. In the Cascades, white fir grows in association with lodgepole pine, sugar pine and California red fir; in the Rockies it grows with Douglas-fir.

Culture

White fir tolerates a wide range of soil types, preferring those slightly on the acidic side. These are long lived, but still fast growing trees, reported to grow 50-60 ft (15-18 m) in the first 30-60 years; after that the growth rate slows dramatically. Don't prune firs except to remove the occasional double leader; they do not fill in with new branches after pruning. Light: White fir can tolerate a little light shade, but it does best in full sun. Moisture: Firs do best on north-facing slopes and should be protected from drying winds. White fir requires a moist soil and a moderately humid climate. They do best where winters are long. with moderate to heavy snowfall. White fir cannot be grown in dry climates. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 7. Firs cannot be grown in hot climates. Propagation: The firs are difficult to start from cuttings. White fir is propagated from seed, which should be stratified under cool, moist conditions for several weeks. The cultivars are usually grafted onto seedling rootstock. White firs do not begin producing cones and seeds until about 40 years of age. On average, they have abundant seed crops every five years.

Usage

White fir is a popular ornamental in Canada and the northern U.S. In general, firs cannot tolerate drought, heat and air pollution, but white fir does a little better in each respect than most, and is the best fir for most landscape applications. They are excellent specimen trees for moderate to large landscapes. The fastigiate, weeping and dwarf cultivars are interesting novelties for smaller landscapes. 'Compacta' is especially desirable.

The wood of white fir is very soft and coarse grained, and used mainly for paper pulp and shipping crates. Lacking a distinctive odor, the wood was formerly made into food containers (especially for butter) prior to the widespread use of plastics.

white fir
This lopsided white fir had its main stem damaged but notice that the symmetrical cone is reforming above the damage.

Features

Plants that reproduce by seeds (as opposed to spores - like ferns and mosses) are divided into two main groups: the gymnosperms, ancient plants which lack flowers and bear naked seeds on bracts, and whose only living members are the cycads, the ginkgo and the conifers; and the angiosperms, which produce flowers and bear seeds enclosed in ovaries (fruits), and include all other seed bearing plants. The conifers are the most important members of the Gymnospermae still extant, although the group formerly dominated the landscape millions of years ago. Most conifers are needle-leaf evergreens (a few have scalelike leaves and a few are deciduous. (The term "conifer" does not quite coincide with the botanical order, Coniferales, which excludes some of the plants that most of us refer to as conifers.) See Floridata's Japanese black pine profile for a breakdown of the families of conifers, and the Norway spruce profile for how to identify the most common genera in the pine family.

Steve Christman 2/7/01; updated 1/18/03



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Abies species profiled on Floridata:


Abies alba

( silver fir, European silver fir )

Abies concolor

( white fir, Colorado fir )

Abies koreana

( Korean fir )

Abies nordmanniana

( Nordmann fir, Caucasian fir )

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