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
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 Coast
Range Saddle Mountain
near Seaside, and at the top of
and Nesmith Point in the Columbia Gorge. You can find replanted noble fir in
logged areas of the Larch Mountain 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. Clackamas
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 .
You won’t find any larch anywhere near any of these peaks. Forest Grove, Oregon
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
. 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. Mt.
Plants of the
by Jim Pojar and
Andy Mackinnon Pacific Northwest