Plant 264

Abies grandis (Douglas ex D.Don) Lindl. (Pinaceae)

Grand fir

At this time of year, people in the Pacific region of northwest America and southwest Canada will be decorating their homes with Christmas trees. The species of tree used is very likely to be grand fir, filling a room with its resinous but refreshing citrus-pine scent. Its gleaming, evergreen foliage is a dark glossy green above, and below greenish white with two silvery white bands separated by a green midrib. The leaves are spirally arranged, and are of two different lengths, but each is twisted at the base making them spread flat like the teeth of a comb in a horizontal plane.

Abies grandis is certainly a grand tree, so called as it often attains a height of 70 metres, and can even grow up to 100 metres in its native habitat, with a single straight columnar trunk. Resin blisters are a feature of the bark. The species is native in the lowland coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest and in the northern Rocky Mountains, where conditions are cool and moist. Within the family Pinaceae, Abies is the second largest genus, having 47 species.

Because of its rapid growth and its size, it is an important timber tree. Young trees grow well in very shady conditions and it is often used for underplanting in silviculture or where there is continuous cover. In Britain it may grow to over 50 metres tall but the wood is weaker than other fir species and can crack in drought conditions, so it is not favoured so much for use in the construction industry. The wood is light in weight and is not resistant to decay. However, the soft white wood is an excellent source of pulpwood for paper manufacture. Plateau Indian tribes in North America used the inner bark of the tree for the treatment of colds and fever.

Abies grandis was one of the plants the Scottish botanist David Douglas introduced into cultivation. The Horticultural Society of London sent him abroad to collect plants. From 1825 to 1827 he explored British Columbia and Oregon and brought back to Britain specimens and seeds of several new species of conifers. Back in Europe in the nineteenth century, the grand fir became popular and was chosen as a must-have tree for most grand landscaped gardens. Also, the promotion of plantations solely consisting of conifer species, called pineta, were developed particularly with the plants introduced by Douglas.

Further reading

Farjon A 2010. A handbook of the world's conifers. Brill.

Hunn ES 1990. Nch'i-Wana, "The Big River": mid-Columbia indians and their land. University of Washington Press.

Savill PS 2013. The silviculture of trees used in British forestry. CABI.

Serena Marner