Needles and bark of Sierra white fir (Abies lowiana), Truckee River. Photo: Kelsey McCutcheon.
If you find a mature stand of Sierra white fir, chances are, you’re standing in a patch of forest that hasn’t burned in a while. White fir, which grow intermixed with Jeffrey and Lodgepole pine along the upper reaches of the Truckee River, are highly flammable and historically weren’t a large component of forests that evolved with frequent understory burns. Today, due to fire exclusion, white fir are slowly are taking over many forest stands (Zouhar 2001).
White fir seedlings are slow-growing, shade-tolerant, and able to establish under a closed canopy. They may take 50 years to reach 3 feet tall, but when a storm or tree-fall opens new space, fir shoot up quickly to fill the gap. White fir can live to be 400 years old and grow to 180 feet tall. They are parasitized by dwarf mistletoe, and trunks are often covered in (harmless) fluorescent-green wolf lichen. They begin to produce cones around age 40 and produce heavy cone crops on a 3 to 9 year cycle (Zouhar 2001).
Cones take two years to develop, growing upright on high branches. The cones do not fall to the ground when ripe, but disintegrate on the tree. If you find a fir cone on the ground in the fall, it was likely put there by a squirrel. Douglas squirrels (“chickarees”) cut unripened cones, drop them to the forest floor, and stockpile them for winter.
Sierra white fir are used by birds and mammals, such as the black bear, which make dens in hollow trunks (Arno, 1973). Needles of White fir can be used to make a lemon/pine scented tea with mild medicinal value. Boil a handful of needles in water, with honey to sweeten. Frequent use can irritate the kidneys (Moore, 2003). White fir is also a popular species of Christmas tree.
Arno, S. F. (1973). Discovering Sierra Trees. Yosemite NP: Yosemite Association.
Moore, M. (2003). Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West (Revised and Expanded Edition ed.). Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press.
USDA. (2014). Sierra white fir (Abies lowiana). In: Plants Database, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Resources Conservation Science. Available: http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=ABLO [2014, December 13}.
Zouhar, Kris. 2001. Abies concolor. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ [2014, December 13].