Grand Fir

Grand firs

Abies grandis (Dougl. ex D. Don) Lindl.

The grand fir is one of the tallest firs, reaching heights of 300 feet. It is easily distinguished from other Pacific Northwest firs by its sprays of lustrous needles in two distinct rows. They are usually horizontally spread so that both the upper and lower sides of the branches are clearly visible. The needles are 1 to 1 1/2 inches long with glossy dark green tops and two highly visible white lines of stomata on the undersides.

The pollen strobili are yellowish and the cones are yellowish-green to green, cylindrical, erect, 2 to 4 inches long, occur high in the crowns and dissipate in the fall to release their seeds.

The bark is grayish-brown, usually with white mottles, smooth with resin blisters when young, becoming rigid and then scaly with age. Like most other true firs, it is thinned barked and therefore very sensitive to fire. Control of fires in the drier southern parts of the northwest has allowed a widespread increase of grand fir over the last 50 years.

It grows from British Columbia inland to Montana and south into northern California. It grows in dry to moist coniferous forests in rain shadow areas, often in association with Douglas-fir. It commonly ranges from river flats to fairly dry slopes from low to middle elevations.

Past research has identified the “Panhandle” area of Idaho as a desirable seed source. Most seedlings produced for Christmas tree growers originate from this region. It is germinated from seed in both greenhouses and bare root nurseries and usually transplanted in a nursery for one to two years.

It is a minor Christmas tree species throughout Washington and Oregon, but a major species in the inland states of Idaho and Montana. It produces a beautiful, thick foliaged tree when sheared and is known for its strong fragrance. In most areas, it will produce a marketable tree in eight to ten years.

Grand fir and white fir are softwoods with characteristics so similar that they are used interchangeably. They are moderately strong and light weight. Earlywood is creamy white to light brown while the latewood gradually changes to reddish brown or a lavender tinge. The heartwood is indistinct.

The wood is relatively straight grained and easy to work. It is most often sold as White Wood, Hem-Fir (Hemlock-Fir) or ES-AF-LP (includes Engelmann spruce, alpine fir and lodgepole pine) for construction. It is also used for boxes, decoration and utility. It has excellent resistance to splitting in nailing and screwing and has outstanding gluing qualities.

Northwest native Americans have a history of making uses of grand fir foliage and branches. Kwakwaka’wakw shamans wove its branches into headdresses and costumes and used the branches for scrubbing individuals in purification rites. The Hesquiat tribes used its branches as incense and decorative clothing for wolf dancers.

It was occasionally used as a fuel. Some interior tribes such as the Okanogan, also made canoes from its bark. Pitch was applied to bows for a secure grip and rubbed on paddles and scorched for a good finish. A brown dye from its bark was used in making baskets by the Straits Salish tribe, along with a pink dye made by mixing the brown dye with red ochre. Knots were shaped, steamed and carved into halibut hooks by several coastal tribes.

Grand fir bark, sometimes mixed with stinging nettles, was boiled and the concoction used for bathing and as a general tonic. The Lushoot tribe boiled needles to make a medicinal tea for colds. The Ditidaht sometimes brought boughs inside as a air freshener and burned them as an incense and to make a purifying smoke to ward off illnesses. These people also crushed and mixed the bark of grand fir, red alder and western hemlock and made an infusion that was rank for internal injuries. The Hesquiat mixed the pitch of young trees with oil and rubbed it on the scalp as a deodorant and to prevent balding.

Prepared by Dennis Tompkins, Editor of the “American Christmas Tree Journal”