To me, the conifers are often difficult to identify. Using basic characteristics, separating the firs from the spruces from the pines and other conifers is not difficult. But within a group of evergreens, particularly where hybridization has occurred, I begin to bog down.
The distinctive lacy pattern of the branches of red fir, or California red fir, (Abies magnifica), as seen looking directly overhead into the tree, immediately cue me into its identity. Red fir is found on high mountain slopes in the Cascades and Siskiyous of Southern Oregon, the mountains of Northwestern California and southward through Mounts Shasta and Lassen into the Sierra Nevada.
Like all true firs, red fir has 1) circular leaf scars where needles are removed from the branches, 2) erect cones that disintegrate in the tree rather than fall to the ground, and 3) smooth bark covered with resin blisters in young trees.
The blunt-tipped red fir needles are yellow-green when young turning blue-green with age. Old needles are flattened and form two dense lines on the upper side of the twig while the younger needles are plump and densely crowded at the twig tips. Red fir cone scales have a heart-shaped base and fall off the tree leaving the cone axis sticking up like a spike. The shiny fruits have reddish-brown seeds and rose-red wings. The chalky white bark of young red fir trees becomes thick with ridges separated by rough, deep furrows in older specimens.
The wood of red fir is weak, soft and light with little commercial use. Interestingly, thick red fir bark from dead trees was burned each night to create the famous “firefall” at Yosemite – a spectacular attraction that has been discontinued.
Since red fir cones shed their scales while still on the tree it is rare to find an intact cone on the ground. Squirrels climb red firs, break the maturing cones off and drop the cones to the ground to eat. The squirrel who dropped this cone from the top of a red fir in the Medicine Lake Highlands (Siskiyou County CA), where I photographed these red fir trees, was probably puzzled when he went to retrieve his supper and was unable to find the cone. But I got a rare cone from the ground.