There are less than a dozen (out of a total of nearly forty) species of Abies found in North America, and of those, most are native to the Pacific Northwest.
Our native Abies are not for the faint of heart or small of space: most of our firs will, in time, reach heights of a hundred feet or more – even though in cultivation they tend to not reach their full stature, they are still formidable and their planting and placement should be carefully considered. That being said, there are species that can be considered garden worthy, have great value to birds and other wildlife, and are well worth considering for the landscape (there are also many cultivars that are considerably smaller in their mature size, so even if you don’t have a lot of wide open space in your yard, you can still grow and enjoy conifers).
Their overall shape is symmetrical, and likewise the needles are arranged symmetrically along the stems — whether in the round like a bottle brush or in a flat horizontal spread — and have a silvery cast on one or more surfaces, which can be very striking in the garden.
Abies can be found from low to sub–alpine elevations, on both sides of the Cascades, in full sun to light partial shade. In general, they prefer full sun, regular water and good drainage. This last is especially important, as Abies can be susceptible to fungal root rot.
A favorite of birds and other wildlife for both food and shelter, conifers in general can provide a good and useful anchor to a landscape. A native fir (or a cultivar of same) is worth considering.
Abies amabilis — Pacific silver fir
This is probably the least commonly found of our native firs. It holds a small, narrow habitat at mid-elevation on the western slope of the Cascades. Slow-growing, it remains a forest understory tree for very many years; it is more shade-tolerant than other firs, and is appreciative of cooler, moister conditions, but still requires good drainage. In the wild it can eventually grow to over 200 feet, but in cultivation generally reaches only a quarter of that size. Photo credit to Walter Siegmund
Abies concolor — white fir
The native white fir makes its home east of the Cascades, so good drainage and drier conditions suit it best. Can take full sun to part shade. Needles are flat and wider than they are thick, arranged horizontally, and have the tell-tale silvery stomata on both surfaces. It is very slow-growing, suitable for a garden or container. In the wild, it can reach a height of 230 feet, though much smaller in a cultivated garden setting. This is one of the firs grown for cut Christmas trees.
Abies grandis — grand fir
Grand is right: even in cultivation, this fir can often grow to over 100 feet in height, twenty feet across! If you have the space, it is a great specimen for a wildlife, woodland or shade garden. Lower branches can eventually be cut away to open a space to plant beneath. Will grow in full sun to partial shade, in moist, well-drained acidic soil.
Abies lasiocarpa — subalpine fir
Also known as ‘alpine fir,’ though its range is actually quite wide — found in lower elevations to near-alpine, in drier areas both sides of the Cascades — and so is often used in large rock garden plantings. In the wild it can reach 100 feet. In a garden setting it stays closer to forty feet. This conifer has beautiful grayish blue-green needles and upright cones that emerge in a striking dark purple color. This slow-grower is very adaptable, suitable for a container and is often used for bonsai. Photo credit to Walter Siegmund
Abies procera — noble fir
Last and certainly not least is our noble fir, which is truly noble in stature and form. If left to its own devices, whether in the wild or in cultivation, it can eventually grow to a massive 200+ feet. With the beautiful symmetry in its growth habit, its well-spaced and slightly upturning needles along stiff branches, it is commonly grown and harvested for cut Christmas trees.
A. procera is a very adaptable tree. Give it full sun and good drainage; it is suitable for garden as well as for container growing. You need to consider its eventual size, but it is fairly slow-growing, and if sited correctly, will prove to be a beautiful addition to a woodland landscape, a real benefit for attracting birds and other wildlife to your garden.
Be sure to check out our non-Native Abies Feature
Common name: (true) fir
Characteristics: Large, majestic and symmetrical conifers, narrow to broadly pyramidal in shape; as small, young trees, a favorite choice for cut Christmas trees.
Native Range and Habitat: Of the small handful of species found in North America, most are native to the Pacific Northwest. Within this area, species of Abies can be found from low to subalpine elevations, from moist forests to drier open spaces.
Care and maintenance: Best planting time is in autumn or early spring, so roots can get established in the cooler part of the year. Specific needs will vary by species, but generally firs prefer full sun to light shade, acidic soil, regular water and good drainage.
Pests and diseases: Though there has been some talk of aphids on fir trees, the main problem in the Pacific Northwest is fungal, usually appearing as some form of root rot. Making sure drainage is sufficient when you plant will generally remove that risk. Some firs are also sensitive to air pollution, and so would be best suited for a more suburban or rural location. (“right-plant-right-place.”)