This is a blog about the native conifers of the Pacific Northwest. It is a companion to the Northwest Conifers site. The blog will focus on timely and interesting details about our conifers, their connections to the rest of the environment, and our connection to them.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Focus on Noble Fir

Noble fir is aptly named. It is a prince among the firs of the Northwest. Its bluish color, its distinctive geometric branching, and the well-groomed appearance of its needles contribute to its desirability as a landscaping tree and Christmas tree. The beauty of this tree inspired David Douglas to name it Abies nobilis when he found it growing in the Columbia Gorge in 1825. It's now called Abies procera. Procera comes from the Latin procerus, which means "tall." This, too, is a fitting name, since it is the tallest of the firs, sometimes growing to 260 feet.

Needles: It's easy to identify noble fir by looking at the underside of a twig. The needles are shaped like hockey sticks with a distinctive curve where they attach to the twig, and sweep away uniformly, giving them a combed appearance. The needles are blue-green with two bands of white on each side, unique among the firs of northwest Oregon and Washington. Grand fir and Pacific silver fir have white only on the lower side of the needles. Subalpine fir needles have two bands on the bottom and a single band on top.

Cones: The cones sit upright on the branch near the tree top, like other firs. But noble fir cones have distinctive whiskery bracts that stick out beyond the scales. Since the cones fall apart at maturity, dispersing seeds and scales, you are not likely to find any intact cones under the tree. However, you may be able to find individual scales with their unique bracts still attached on the ground in the fall. The winged seeds can sail a distance twice the height of the tree, even more on a windy day.

Bark: Young bark is gray and smooth with resin blisters. Older bark breaks into furrows with flat, narrow ridges. The bark is fairly thin, which explains noble fir’s poor resistance to fire.

Where it grows: Noble fir grows in the Coast Range and the Cascades, mostly above 3000 feet, but occasionally down to 2000 feet elevation. Although they don’t usually grow in pure stands, you can find large numbers on Saddle Mountain near Seaside, and at the top of Larch Mountain and Nesmith Point in the Columbia Gorge. You can find replanted noble fir in logged areas of the Clackamas River drainage. Noble fir loves sunlight and ample amounts of rain. It grows on steep mountain slopes and thrives in open, sunlit locations. It grows in the shaded understory better than Douglas fir, but is not as shade tolerant as grand fir or Pacific silver fir. Like Douglas fir, its seeds can germinate and grow on bare soils after disturbances like fire and logging.

In southwest Oregon, noble fir hybridizes with red fir. Although some sources list red fir as an Oregon native, Oregon Flora Project classifies those growing in southwest Oregon as hybrids (Abies magnifica x Abies procera), often called Shasta red fir. The bracts on red fir cones are hidden within the scales. As you travel south in the Oregon Cascades where the hybrids grow, the bracts appear shorter and shorter as they become more like those of red fir.

Uses: The wood is valued for lumber, because it is stronger than hemlock and the other true firs. It has been used to make ladders because it is strong and light. The British used it for the frames of their Mosquito airplanes in World War II. Since fir wood had little commercial value as lumber, noble fir was marketed as the more highly prized larch in the early twentieth century. This is why several peaks where noble firs grow are called Larch Mountain, including one on each side of the Columbia River east of Portland and one northwest of Forest Grove, Oregon. You won’t find any larch anywhere near any of these peaks.

Noble fir is arguably the finest native Christmas tree in the Northwest, prized for its form, stiff branches, groomed needles, and bluish color. Someone told me recently that you can identify a noble fir on a Christmas tree lot by looking at the price tag. It will be the most expensive variety. Noble fir is often planted as an ornamental. It grows well at lower elevations in direct sunlight or partial shade.

Big trees: The tallest living noble fir is 272 feet tall, located at Goat Marsh Research Natural Area, near Mt. Saint Helens. The tallest recorded noble fir was destroyed in the Mt. Saint Helens eruption in 1980. It was 325 feet tall, just two feet shorter than the tallest living Douglas fir.

More  Info.

Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Jim Pojar and Andy Mackinnon 

1 comment:

  1. Interesting information Ken! Did not know it would hybridize.