Growing Firs in Nebraska

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The state of Nebraska isn’t known for its vast forests of conifers, except for a couple pockets of Ponderosa Pine, Limber Pine, Eastern Red Cedar and Rocky Mountain Juniper. They will grow here, but are not thought of as having endless, hardy varieties to choose from as are the flowering crabs.

Over the past 25 years I’ve tried to grow several varieties of fir, spruce and pine. Some trials have shown disappointment, while others promise. This information should be especially useful now that many varieties, presently being used, have the possibility of disease problems. The following is a brief synopsis of what my conifer experiences have shown me, and hopefully will help shed some light on a few varieties in question. In this article I’ll talk about the Genus Abies, known as the true firs. In following issues I will discuss spruce, pine and a few other notables.

Firs are generally native to cooler, and less extreme climates than we have in Nebraska.

They dislike heavy soils, not to mention soil that accompanies new construction. The Concolor Firs has been the mainstay of the fir family. But I’ve grown to appreciate Canaan, Nordmann, Korean, Manchurian, Nikko, Corkbark, Turkish, Boris-Regis and Balsam as well.

It is said that the Nordmann and Turkish Fir can withstand the wettest, heaviest soils that any fir will tolerate. I have grown these in containers, and while other conifers are dying from being over watered, these two varieties show very few losses. They are heavy in texture like a Noble Fir (often used for Christmas tree production, but not proven hardy), and display a beautiful dark, green color. Both varieties would work well as a screen or accent and compare in size to a Concolor Fir (pictured at top left).

The Korean Fir (pictured at right) is known as a small garden conifer and is used quite often for that purpose in the New England states. Its needles have a green top-side and silver under-side, giving the tree a bicolor appearance. This is in contrast with the purple, upright standing cones it exhibits in late spring. It will probably mature around 30’ tall x 15’ wide.

Canaan Fir (pictured at left) are thought to be a natural cross between the Fraser Fir and the Balsam Fir. It seems to tolerate the heat much better than the two varieties from which it came. I consistently see 12-18” of growth per year, even in my non-irrigated pasture where most of these trees have been tested. It’s used for Christmas tree production and has that wonderful holiday scent. It’s a relatively narrow tree, and has been used in landscapes around foundations of homes. Probably my favorite conifer at present and will attain an approximate mature size of 30’ tall x 12’ wide.

Manchurian Fir is a long needled fir. As the name implies, you would gather that this tree is fairly tolerant of extreme weather conditions. After five years of growing this variety, I have yet to see a tree die, out of 20 or so planted. They aren’t only in my landscape, but in several, including a windbreak in Albion, NE. It, too, seems to be fairly moderate in growth at about 12” per year and displays a rich, green color. It’s one of my favorites. Have I said that yet?

Nikko, Corkbark and Boris-Regis Fir seem to do fairly well so far. I would have to say that the jury is still out on the Corkbark Fir. It dislikes heavy, wet soil as much, if not more so, than the Concolor Fir. I just hate to give up on it because of its blue color and corky bark. It’s a cousin to the Alpine Fir (pictured at right), which is native to the timberline region in Estes Park, CO. That tells you the Corkbark Fir dislikes heat and poor drainage…but so do I and I live here. One such Alpine Fir I planted went into complete transplant shock, lost ALL of its needles, sat dead looking for a year, then sent out new growth the following year. It is now a beautiful, dense, 5/6’ tall evergreen tree. I had never seen an evergreen do that before and that’s another reason I have a soft spot for the Corkbark.

The previously mentioned selections have proven to be the most durable, aside from a few other fir varieties I have tried such as Pindrow, Pacific Silver, Red, Sacchalin and Noble. I wouldn’t necessarily plant these varieties in a windbreak situation, although some are in just that, but rather use as food for thought. Just because an evergreen variety hasn’t been used, or isn’t supposed to be hardy here, does not mean it shouldn’t be tested. Didn’t people tell J. Sterling Morton that White Pine will never grow in NE? Good thing he didn’t listen.

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