In colder areas, spruce trees are a common sight, and they are widely used in landscaping. Despite their beauty, the fact that they are so widely used can make them slightly boring options. Their value as screens or specimens can certainly not be underestimated, but sometimes we yearn for something different. If you are looking for a hardy, attractive specimen evergreen for a lawn, or something tough to make a privacy screen or wind-break, and spruce leaves you cold, consider the fir trees, a group that contains some magnificent evergreens every bit as useful as the common spruce.
Get to know Fir Trees
Fir trees are conifers – needle trees that are almost all evergreen. They can be found all around the Northern Hemisphere, usually in colder areas, and on mountain slopes. They typically have a strong central trunk, with branches radiating out all around the trunk, and many can potentially grow to great heights, well over 100 feet tall. Since it takes many decades to reach such heights, in practice in gardens they are often much smaller than in the wild, and many selected garden forms stay usefully small enough to fit medium-sized gardens.
It can sometimes be difficult at first glance to distinguish fir trees from other similar conifers – like spruce trees. If the tree you see has cones on it, then the task is made very easy indeed. Fir trees are unique in having cones that sit upright on the branches, not hanging as they do in all other similar trees. They sit proudly upright, even when they are large, sometimes 6 or 8 inches long. They are also often attractive colors – green, brown, purple or blue. As well, behave differently when they ripen. Instead of falling to the ground intact, they break up on the tree into flat, scaly seeds, which blow away in the wind.
If there are no cones, it is still pretty easy to decide, ‘Ah, fir tree.’ Take a look at the needles on the stems. In fir trees they are always flattened, not round, and they usually end in a notch, not a point. They are also commonly, but not always, arranged in two rows along both sides of the stem, in the manner of a double-sided comb. Even if that is not very obvious, the lower needles often curve upwards, so that they do not radiate out uniformly around the stem. Looking for these things will usually give you a good idea if a certain tree is a fir.
Fir Trees for the Garden
There are around 50 species of fir trees, but only a handful are commonly found in gardens, and many of the species differ only in ways a botanist would find interesting. They are grouped together based on where they come from, with an important group from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, another from North America and Asia, and another from the western USA, Mexico, and in mountains into Central America. Let us look at some of the more interesting ones for gardens.
This tree, called Abies balsamea, is the work horse in the group, and it is sadly overplanted as a rather dull, dark-green screening plant. As a garden feature we can quickly pass it by, even though if you want a tough, cold-resistant screening tree, and don’t care much about appearance, it certainly fits the bill.
This tree tells a very different story to the Balsam Fir. Coming from southern Spain and northern Morocco, this handsome tree, Abies pinsapo, has been developed for gardens into several different attractive forms. It rapidly grows into a beautiful, densely-clothed upright tree of perfect conical form. Older trees have large cones of a rich purple color, and best of all, there is an award-winning blue form, ‘Glauca’, called the Blue Spanish Fir. It is hardy from zone 6 south, and is far superior in every way to the common Blue Spruce. Its rich blue foliage must be seen to be believed, and the tree will stay clothed to the ground in a full circle of branches for decades. If you have a good-sized lawn needing a specimen tree, you cannot go wrong with this selection.
If blue is not your thing, then consider the golden form of this tree, the Golden Spanish Fir, Abies pinsapo ‘Aurea’. Unlike most other conifers with golden foliage, this tree holds it golden color all year, never turning green, which makes it very special. It is also much smaller than the blue form, only reaching 15 feet, or eventually 25 feet in height. If you have a smaller space to fill, give this one some serious thought.
From a different group of fir trees from Asia, the Korean Fir, Abies koreana, stands out. This one is much hardier, all the way into Zone 4, and it revels in snow and cold winters. It has the added benefit of also growing well in partial shade, unlike almost all other conifers, so it is very versatile around the garden. An outstanding smaller form is the Silver Curls Korean Fir, with the tongue-twisting name of ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’, which is one of the richest blue conifers available. It is also special among firs for producing its purple cones from a very early age, when just 3 or 4 years old. So even a very young tree will show them, contrasting beautifully with the rich blue foliage.
Colorado White Fir
This all-American tree hails from the Rocky Mountains and through the western ranges. It is widely considered to be the most elegant and dramatic of all the larger fir trees, growing 40 feet tall or more in time. For a larger garden, as a specimen, or to plant along the boundary of your property, this outstanding tree is an excellent choice. Known as Abies concolor, because the needles are the same color on both sides, it is hardy even in bone-chilling zone 3, making it an excellent choice if you garden in the Midwest or the north. In fact, it will not grow well south of zone 7, so you can only see it in colder areas – a special treat for northerners.
All in all, fir trees have a lot to offer, with remarkable foliage color and dramatic cones. If you are looking for evergreens to bring something different from the usual choices, then one or other of these interesting trees will certainly bring you just what you need.