ABIES: The Fir Tree
Traditional Christmas Firs
All of these Fir trees have the traditional holiday tree shape – pyramidal in youth, maturing to very tall and narrow.
Abies balsamea - Balsam Fir
Native to Northeastern US & Canada - Slender cone shape maturing to 50’ tall, 20’ wide – crushed needles smell like the forest – transplants easily because of shallow root system. Zone 3.
Abies fraseri - Fraser Fir
Native to the Appalachian Mountains in Southeastern US – Dense pyramidal shape becomes more open with age, growing to 30-40’ tall & 20’ wide – Zone 4.
Abies grandis - Grand Fir
Native to the Pacific Northwest – Fragrant needles are arranged in rows on opposite sides of the branch, resembling the tines of a comb – New growth is bright lime green, dotting the tree with soft green tips – Grand fir grows about 12” per year, and can grow very large given time. The largest specimens are up to 300 feet! Hardy Zone 6.
Abies nordmaniana - Nordman Fir
A Portland Nursery Staff favorite, Nordman Fir has particularly glossy fat bright green needles, with a very uniform symmetrical habit. Adapts well to different soils and will work growing in a container for awhile. Hardy Zone 4.
Abies procera - Noble Fir
Native to the Cascade Mountains and the Coast Range from Washington to northwest California. Symmetrical pyramid to narrow tall tree, growing 50-100’ in cultivation and much larger in the wild. Noble Fir is a popular cut Christmas tree because its strong tiered branching habit is perfect for hanging ornaments. In cultivation, Noble Firs need improved soil drainage, and a moist cool site. They prefer to be in containers for only a short time, no more than one year. Hardy Zone 5.
Firs for Containers
Abies koreana - Korean Fir
Silvery gray new growth turns dark green with blue reverse. Produces purple cones at a young age – Grows in a symmetrical, uniform pyramid, about 12” a year to 30’ in time. Hardy Zone 5.
Abies koreana 'Glauca'
Blue green needles, broad cone shape. grows to 6-8' in 10 years.
Abies koreana 'Horstmann's Silberlocke'
A Korean Fir with superb, fat, twisted needles that reveal silvery white undersides - grows slowly to a 30' pyramid.
Abies koreana 'Starker's Dwarf'
A dwarf Fir with glossy dark green needles - grows in a nest form in youth, eventually mounds to 6'.
Abies concolor ‘Glauca Compacta’
Dwarf White Fir. Frosty blue needles on a small, dense cone-shaped tree – A true dwarf, the compact White Fir grows 3-6” per year, reaching about 3’ in 10 years. Hardy Zone 4.
Abies pinsapo Spanish Fir
Native to the mountains of Spain. The Spanish Fir has stiff short pokey needles that are arranged in circles around the branches. It grows about 12-15”/yr in a pyramidal form, reaching about 12’ x 6’ in 10 yrs., 60’ in time. Hardy Zone 7.
Abies pinsapo 'Aurea'
Needles look frosted with buttercream – grows slower than species, about 6' per year to 25'.
Abies pinsapo 'Glauca'
Frosty blue-green sharp needles, grows in a pyramid shape, possibly faster than the species to 60’+.
Abies pinsapo ‘Horstmann Nana’
Very dwarf blue-needled form, grows 4” per year with a flat, prostrate habit.
Photo credits to Jim Coughlin, Portland Nursery and Oregon State University.
Genus: Abies – from the Latin word abire, meaning ‘to rise’ – refers to the great height that many firs attain.
Common Name: Fir
Origin: 50 or so species originating from Europe, northern Africa, Asia and America
Characteristics: Leaves/needles are usually flat and soft with the exception of Spanish Fir. Female cones stand upright along branches.
Habit is pyramidal and symmetrical in the species plants, but can vary to round, pendulous and contorted in cultivated varieties. Firs grow relatively slowly, and even slower in urban environments.
Culture: General requirements are moist, acidic, well-drained soil, high humidity and low temperatures.
Culture requirements vary with species - Abies lasiocarpa, our native Sub-alpine Fir, needs very fast draining soil in order to thrive, but Abies grandis, our native Grand Fir adapts easily to a variety of soil types.
Planting is best accomplished from mid-autumn to spring so that roots can become established during cooler times of the year.
Typically Firs prefer full sun, but light shade is acceptable. Tolerance to cold temperatures varies, but all of the Firs on our list are hardy in Portland.
Problems: Insects seem to avoid Firs for the most part, but fungal problems are fairly common, mostly in the form of root-rot. Roots need to be allowed air circulation, so adding compost when planting can help.
If the tree requires exceptional drainage, consider blending pumice with the compost, or choosing a tree that will be happy growing in a container.