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Abies alba Mill.

European Silver Fir

Modern name

Abies alba Mill.


A. pectinata DC.

A tree up to 150 ft high in Britain, with a trunk 5 to 612 ft in thickness; young shoots brownish grey, covered with a short down; winter buds not resinous. Leaves usually in two opposite sets spreading horizontally, but occasionally with others on the upper side pointing forwards; 12 to 113 in. long, the upper ranks of each set the smaller and scarcely half as long as the lower ones; 116 to 112 in. wide, notched at the blunt apex, dark glossy green above, with two white stomatic bands beneath. Cones 412 to 6 in. long, 112 to 2 in. wide; at first green, then reddish brown; the bracts protruded and reflexed. On cone-bearing branches the leaves become pointed, shorter, stiffer, and curved upwards.

Native of the mountains of Central and S. Europe; cultivated in Britain for more than three centuries. The common silver fir refuses to grow in the hot, dry, Lower Thames Valley, and does not thrive in many low-lying and frosty parts of the south of England. A generous rainfall and a situation reasonably free from late spring frosts are necessary for its success and, although not exacting as to soil, it is not suited to infertile sands and peats. In the moist valleys of Scotland it reaches magnificent proportions and there are numerous trees there exceeding 140 ft in height and 15 ft in girth. The silver fir is very patient of shade and for this reason was once much used for underplanting. Its susceptibility to aphis attack has restricted its use as a forestry tree in recent years, although interest is now reviving owing, partly, to its resistance to Fomes.

The tallest specimen measured in the British Isles grows by the roadside at Kilbride, Inveraray, Argyll, and is one of a group probably planted about 1680; in 1960 it measured about 180 ft in height and 2012 ft in girth. The following is only a selection of other notable specimens: Powis Castle, Montg., two trees pl. 1847, 162 × 1134 ft and 150 × 834 ft (1954); Inveraray, Argyll, one on Loch Shira, 153 × 1512 ft, and another at Tom Breac, 151 × 1934 ft (1955); Dunkeld, Perths., 151 × 1534 ft (1962); Alnwick Castle, Northumb., 137 × 17 ft and 142 × 16 ft (1956).

In southern England there are no specimens to compare with these, but an old tree at Highclere, Hants, now dying, stood at 146 × 1314 ft when measured in 1955. There is another tall tree in Savernake Forest, about 145 ft high.

f. pendula (Carr.) Aschers. & Graebn. – Sports in which the main and secondary branches are in some degree pendulous occur fairly frequently in the wild and have been recorded from the Vosges, the Black Forest, and other parts. The cultivar name ‘Pendula’ belongs to a clone that originated in Godefroy’s nursery in France before 1835 and may have been distributed in this country by Knight and Perry of Chelsea. There are examples of this sport at Tregrehan, Cornwall, and Endsleigh, Devon, probably of the same origin.

f. pyramidalis (Carr.) Voss – Branches ascending, making a fastigiate or pyramidal tree after the fashion of the Lombardy poplar. Trees of this kind were in cultivation in Britain in the middle of the last century, but their origin is unknown and none has been traced. This sport is very rare in the wild, but according to Carrière (Traité des Conifères, 1855) one was found in the department of Isères, France.

A. borisii-regis Mattf. A. alba var. acutifolia Turrill – As Mattfeld defined it, this is a variable species, native of S. Bulgaria and N.E. Greece, which combines in various ways the characters of A. alba and A. cephalonica. In parts of its area it is in contact with one or other of these species, but in the Rhodope Range of Bulgaria, and on the Athos peninsula, it occurs in isolation from both. Mattfeld considered the species to be the product of hybridisation at the end of the Tertiary period, when A. alba migrated southward as the climate cooled with the onset of the Ice Age and met and crossed with A. cephalonica. However, the whole complex is in need of further study.

A. nebrodensis (Lojac.) Mattei A. alba var. nebrodensis Lojac. – A close ally of A. alba, from which it differs in its resinous buds and shorter leaves. Extensive forests of this species once’ existed in N. Sicily in the Monti Nebrodi and Madonie. It is now almost extinct but attempts are being made to re-establish it. A few grafted plants are in cultivation.

From the Supplement (Vol. V)

Although it grows well over much of the British Isles, most of the largest as well as the oldest specimens are to be found in Scotland. Among these are: Raehills, Dumfr., pl. 1790, 164 × 2034 ft (1984); Kilkerran, Ayrs., 150 × 16 ft (1972); Strone, Argyll, 144 × 30 ft (1983); Ardkinglas, Argyll, 156 × 2114 ft and 176 × 1814 ft (1985); Benmore, Argyll, 156 × 1612 ft (1983); Dunkeld, Perths., in the American Garden, 150 × 1612 ft and 144 × 1212 ft (1981); Dupplin Castle, Perths., Garden, 132 × 1934 ft, and in Castle Den, 135 × 1714 ft (1983); Murthly Castle, Perths., off Old Drive, 148 × 1634 ft (1981); Inchmarlo, Kinc., 141 × 1814 ft and 138 × 19 ft (1981); Armadale Castle, Skye, by Drive, 148 × 1334 ft, and on Lawn, 111 × 1614 ft (1978).

Outside Scotland there are few large specimens, the most notable being: Eridge Castle, Kent, 144 × 12 ft (1984); Enys, Cornwall, 150 × 1114 ft (1977); Coed Coch, Clwyd, 157 × 1534 ft (1984); Powis Castle, Powys, in the Garden, 148 × 1114 ft and 145 × 1212 ft (1981).

A. borisii-regis – As mentioned on page 145, this fir probably derives from ancient hybridisation between A. alba and A. cephalonica. In cultivation it makes a vigorous tree with a very dark trunk; the young shoots are densely pubescent, indeed more so than is usually the case in A. alba (in A. cephalonica they are glabrous). The leaves are more densely set than in A. alba, more slender, and show the influence of A. cephalonica in having some stomata on the upper surface. On coning branches the leaves are acute and slightly pungent, as in A. cephalonica.

The largest example of A. borisii-regis grows at Stonefield, Argyll, and measures 133 × 1434 ft (1981). Others are: Westonbirt, Glos., in Loop Walk, 117 × 1134 ft (1982); Penrhyn Castle, Gwyn., 118 × 11 ft (1974); Borde Hill, Sussex, pl. 1910, 80 × 712 ft (1981); Caledon, Co. Tyrone, 105 × 912 ft (1985); Birr Castle, Co. Offaly, Eire, pl. 1945, 86 × 612 ft and 105 × 712 ft (1985); Abbeyleix, Co. Laois, 102 × 13 ft and 85 × 914 ft (1985).

A. nebrodensis – A further difference between this species and A. alba is that its branchlets are glabrous or almost so. There are a few grafted plants in cultivation, the largest only about 2 ft in girth and 30-40 ft high.



Other species in the genus