Horticulture Highlight: Korean Fir, Abies koreana
…By wintry hills his hermit-mound
The sheeted snow-drifts drape,
And houseless there the snow-bird flits
Beneath the fir-trees’ crape…
Many birds seek out protection from the coming harsher weather changes within our large, diverse collection of conifers and other evergreens. Previously we have briefly discussed different fir trees (Abies) within our living collection. Many people are fondly familiar with our native balsam fir, Abies balsamea, a traditional, fragrant Christmas tree. In some high mountains of Mexico, in addition to birds, it is tens of millions of monarch butterflies, some fluttering thousands of miles in southward migration, seeking the oyamel firs, Abies religiosa to which they spend winters huddled together. Approximately fifty species of true fir trees are found worldwide. The word Abies, the genus name, was used to describe the wooden ribs of the Trojan horse by Virgil (70-19 B. C.), ancient Roman poet.
Herein we add the Korean Fir, Abies koreana to our “baker’s dozen” of fir species that grow at Mount Auburn. Endemic to southern Korea, growing at sub-alpine areas ranging from 3000’-5500’ above sea level, it was originally introduced to the west in the early-twentieth-century, by the eminent plant explorer, Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930).
This is a 30-50-foot (often smaller in landscape use), erect, pyramidal, slow-growing evergreen tree. The flattened, linear leaves are ½-inch to 3/4-inch-long with a curved tip, the tip may have a tiny notch or not. The needles often point forward and grow around the stem as opposed to forming a “V”, or pectinate fashion, as found on many other species of Abies. As with many other conifers there are separate male (pollen producing) and female (cone producing) flowers on each tree. When its female flowers, often located on the uppermost branches, are successfully fertilized, barrel-shaped, 2-3-inch long, cones are produced which sit upright upon branches. Abies cones mature and disintegrate while still on the tree, leaving a central spine. A notable characteristic of Korean Fir is the violet-purple, some say bluish, color of the immature cones, which eventually turn brown.
Ongoing assessment studies indicate declines of the Korean fir forests due to a combination of factors including climate change, forest fragmentation, ungulate browsing, pathogen attacks as well as bamboo and pine species competition. In Korea, this is a species now listed as endangered, and unfortunately without increases in natural regeneration may eventually qualify as Critically Endangered.
On your next visit to Mount Auburn look for a fine specimen of Korean Fir, Abies koreana on the west side of Willow Court Crypts on Story Road. A beautiful cultivated variety, Abies koreana ‘Silberlocke’ is found on Birch Avenue at Crystal Avenue having exceedingly recurved needles displaying gleaming, white/silver undersides. We also have several examples of reduced maximum size, or “dwarf” cultivated varieties. Abies koreana ‘Green Carpet’ is on Willow Avenue opposite Oxalis Path, Abies koreana ‘Prostrate Beauty’ is part of a shrub border at Bluejay Path.
She visits still too much, dressed in aromas
of fir needles…
–W. S. Di Piero