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The White Fir

The healthy crown of a White Fir along the Chamisa Trail

It’s the time of year here in Santa Fe when an afternoon ramble in the mountains seems like the perfect way to refresh your spirits after a late breakfast, or a bout of Christmas shopping among the shops downtown. A fifteen minute drive from the Plaza will bring you to easy trails that wind through the mixed conifer forests so characteristic of the middle elevations of the Southern Rockies. Typically free from snow this time of year, and bathed in the warm slanted sunlight of the dry New Mexico winter, these trails invite you into a woods of surprising variety. And one tree which is sure to catch your eye is the White Fir Abies concolor.

This is the tree that makes the waxy blue note among all the other evergreens:

The distinctive silvery-blue to silvery-green needles of the White Fir

A closer look reveals ranked and upright needles curling from grey twigs. If you crush a few of these between your fingers, you’ll release the sweet balsamic fragrance of pineapples.

White Fir needles

Although the bark of young trees is smooth and grey, mature trees are clothed in a thick, rough, furrowed ashy-grey bark quite in contrast to the warm cinnamon-colored plates of their companion Ponderosas:

The bark on a mature White Fir

You almost never see these trees’ cones littering the forest floor. Perched high at the top of the trees and sitting upright in the manner of true Firs, the scales of White Fir cones disaggregate easily and fall unnoticed to the ground:

White fir cones

When the White Fir is free to reach for the sky unimpeded by neighboring trees, it takes on a distinctive ‘nose cone’ profile which frequent hikers come to recognize:

The profile of a tall White Fir along the Chamisa Trail

It’s hard to admit that such a fine tree could have a bad habit, but since it is reluctant to self-prune its dense whorls of branches, it often retains a skirt of dead wood right down to the ground. Ponderosa Pines, by contrast, are commonly as free of lower branches as a palm tree. These branches can act as fire ladders to carry flames up into the canopy during forest fires. On a less significant note, this also means that White Firs rarely invite you to sit under them, and while I have climbed high into Douglas Firs, and sheltered under Engelmann Spruce, I don’t think anybody except for a squirrel has climbed a White Fir:

The uninviting thicket at the base of a White Fir

When I think of fir trees, I picture boreal forests high on cold mountain peaks, making a last stand just at timber line. And indeed, in Colorado the slender Alpine Fir occupies this very position, as does the magnificent Red Fir of the Sierra Nevada, dominating the lofty granite ‘flats’ of those mountains. But the White Fir is happy at middle elevations, from 7500′ to 10,000′ in our Rockies, and ┬áit drops out at greater heights, where the snow forest of Engelmann Spruce and aspen takes over. Like the Ponderosa Pine, it seems perfectly content with long dry summers as well as snow.

Young White Firs immediately put you in mind of Christmas trees. It’s that time of year, you know.

A young White Fir along the trail

The most common Christmas trees sold by local families in Santa Fe are these firs, cut in the mountains east of us. Brought inside and transfigured by lights, ornaments, and love, the White Fir becomes the shining star of the Christmas season:

Christmas in Old Santa Fe


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