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The Cone-bearing Trees of Yosemite (1939) by James E. Cole


RED FIR

Abies magnifica Murray.

Red Fir, Abies magnifica
[click to enlarge]
Red Fir is the noblest of its race and is in some respects the most magnificent conifer of Yosemite and of the Sierra. Beside the other forest giants, it equals the tallest in stature, although somewhat less in girth; but eclipses them all in stateliness and in regularity of architecture. Particularly in youth, it attains a perfection of form that represents the ultimate in tree beauty. The charm of the symmetrical outline of young trees is matched by the superlative arrangement of the level or down-sweeping, fan-like branches, the smooth white bark, and the dazzling silver sheen of the beautiful foliage when seen against the sun.

When small, Red Firs are easily identified by the orderly system of branching and the manner of growth of the leaves. At regular intervals of six to twelve inches, and there only, branches grow in whorls along the trunk. Those at the top are short, standing out horizontally, but become progressively longer and sweep down, out, and slightly up as they descend whorl by whorl down the shaft. So methodical is the branching system, that the age of young firs can be determined within close limits by merely counting these whorls. The leaves on the lower boughs continue the fan-like arrangement by appearing to grow horizontally from the twigs so that when seen against the sky a young Red Fir has a precision of symmetry not equaled by any other Yosemite conifer.

The White Firs that grow at lower elevations nearly simulate this exquisite orderliness but can be distinguished at a distance by the lighter green shade and thinner foliage. Close inspection of the leaves discloses a diagnostic difference between White and Red Firs that never fails to give positive identification. The bases of White Fir needles have a petiole with a distinct half twist where they are attached to the branch, whereas Red Fir needles are sessile and straight or curved to the right or left hut never twisted at the base. The leaves are from three-fourths to one and one-fourth inches long and are all conspicuously four-sided in cross section. Older needles are dark blue-green tinged with white, while young leaves are a lighter shade of green and so white as to look more like silver.

No other tree in Yosemite has hark similar to that of old Red Firs either in pattern or color. The thick bark is deeply fissured and irregularly divided by short, diagonal ridges producing a striking zig-zag mosaic. The weathered, outer scales are dark red, or purplish from a distance, but the fresh, inner bark is a bright luxurious red. When the foliage cannot be examined, as is generally the case with large fir trees, this definite, reddish inner bark clearly indicates the Red Fir. While Firs have a yellowish, cork-like inner bark and a grayer shade on the outside.

The bark of Red Firs is used exclusively for the Fire-fall. This is a bonfire which when pushed off Glacier Point produces one of the most beautiful of man-made spectacles. Nightly in the summer and on weekends during the winter a pile of Red fir bark, obtained from fallen, dead trees, is lighted at about seven-thirty in the evening and burns until nine o’clock by which time it is reduced to a mass of small red-hot flakes. These coals are then slowly pushed off Glacier Point and fall 900 feet over the precipitous sidewall where they land on a barren granite ledge. This glorious fall of fire compares in beauty with the misty falls of water and profoundly impresses all who see it.

To the long list of singular characteristics peculiar to firs, one more can be added. Like all true firs, the cones of Red and White Firs stand erect on the branches. They are blunt cylinders that grow erect only near or at the very tips of the trees. The scales and seeds fall away one by one leaving the stout cone axis persistent on the branch like candles on a Christmas tree. Red Fir cones are from five to eight inches long and about half as wide. White Fir cones are from three to five inches long.

One of the charms of driving to Glacier Point comes from the view of the forests of Red Fir seen along the way. The abruptness that Lodgepole Pines bordering the meadows repeatedly give way to these majestic firs on the ridges is astonishing. The tall, gradually tapering trunks clothed with densely foliated short branches and terminating in flat, open crowns beckon enticingly to hurried visitors to linger awhile. Pause by one of these noble giants and enjoy its silvery splendor. Learn about trees from the trees themselves.



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