The noble fir: A tree whose seeds are made to wander

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A small noble fir seedling in the middle of the pumice plain on the northeast section of Mount Saint Helens. The nearest mature noble fir to this tree is more than 5 kilometers (just over 3 miles) away. Photo: DNR

Noble fir is a popular ornamental tree throughout the Pacific Northwest and many consider it the premiere holiday tree. The firs you might see at Christmas tree lots typically come from tree farms, but this tree will grow quite large naturally throughout the southern Cascade Mountains of western Washington.

While the noble doesn’t produce a large number of cones, the seeds within those cones are large — large enough to provide young sprout with nutrients for up to a year while its roots try to find a favorable spot to grow. As a result, noble firs can sprout and grow well in areas with deep winter snowpacks that would crush or smother the smaller seedlings of other species such as Douglas fir.

You wouldn’t expect such large seeds to spread very far from their origin tree, but the windy, icy conditions at high-elevations can allow noble fir seeds to slip, slide and blow around great distances — sometimes a few miles as shown in our photo of a seedling that took root more than three miles from the nearest mature noble fir.

Interesting facts like this and more can be found in DNR’s guides for identifying old trees and forests in Washington: Identifying Mature and Old Forests in Western Washington and Identifying Old Trees and Forests in Eastern Washington, both written by Robert Van Pelt, PhD. Both guidebooks are free to download.

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