Horticulture Highlight: Abies Collection

February 2, 2012

I remember, I remember,

The fir trees dark and high;

I used to think their slender tops

Were close against the sky…

-Thomas Hood

Worldwide, there are about fifty species of true fir trees, within the genus Abies. All are evergreen, and often have a single trunk, with a superb, distinguished, symmetrical, habit. Firs may be identified from other conifers by their single, needle-like leaves, which are attached to the branch stems by a petiole base that reminds you of a suction cup, and leaves a circular scar on the twig when pulled away. Fir needles are generally flattened in profile (not diamond-shaped, as are spruce needles), and the tips are often blunt (not prickle-tipped, as are spruce needles).  The cones rest distinctively upright on the branches, while most other species of conifers have pendulous cones. These cones ultimately disintegrate, releasing their seeds, while still attached to the trees, hence, it is very infrequent that one can find an intact fir cone on the ground beneath these trees.

As an example of the diversity of Mount Auburn’s living collection, one can find thirteen different species of Abies, or fir trees throughout our landscape. The most commonly found species here is Abies concolor, white fir, which is native to the western United States.  The Latin name, “concolor” alludes to the fact that both surfaces of the needle show the same steely, blue-gray, color, a most appealing attribute, that aids in picking out these trees throughout our grounds. These needles emit a pleasing balsamic fragrance when broken.  We have over thirty of these white firs found in many locations, but one of our largest is located between Nasturtium Path and Magnolia Avenue.

The Nikko fir, Abies homolepis, is native to the mountains of southern and central Japan, where it may reach a height of 100 feet in the wild, but more often in cultivation achieves a height of 50 feet, forming a wide, pyramidal, shape. We have a spectacular specimen on Pilgrim Path, at Spruce Avenue, and another impressive individual on Sycamore Avenue, at Gerardia Path.

Abies alba, the European silver fir is native to much of Europe and has become naturalized in the western parts of Britain.  An image of a silver fir decorated by Prince Albert (1819-1861) appeared in the Illustrated London News, in 1848, depicting the Queen’s Christmas tree and thus helped popularize in Britain, and the United States, our now familiar custom of having indoor Christmas trees. You will find our European silver fir on Snowdrop Path.

Abies nordmanniana , Caucasian fir is native to the Caucasian mountains and nearby northeast Turkey. It is named after Alexander Nordmann (1803-1866), a Finnish botanist and one of its discoverers.  Look for this tree on Chestnut Avenue.

Abies cilicica, Cilician fir, is native to Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. This is a plant mentioned in the Bible, “The glory of Lebanon shall come unto thee, the fir tree, the pine tree, and the box together, to beautify the place of my sanctuary….” Isaiah 60:13. And from Wikipedia, “In 2009… archaeologists found two blocks of resin from the Syrian fir tree (Abies Cilicia)… recovered from 1st-century AD… were used in mummification, as an antiseptic, a diuretic, to treat wrinkles, extract worms and promote hair growth.” With such glowing attributes, we are a bit hesitant to say you may find this tree on Fountain Avenue.

On your next visit to Mount Auburn, look for these and other fir trees, found throughout our wonderful winter landscape.


About the Author: Jim Gorman

Visitor Services Assistant

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One Comment

  1. Betsy Munzer says:

    Another great article – interesting, informative, and humorous. Thanks for sharing your great plant and literature knowledge, we love it.
    Betsy Munzer

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