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Sunday, November 14, 2004 

A Little Fir Tree History

Some writers attempt to restrict the name Fir to the Spruces and Silver Firs, the genus Abies of science, and to translate the name Pinus only by the word Pine; but popular usage clings to the name of English origin for our only truly indigenous member of the group. This noble tree, known to botanists as Pinus sylvestris, occurs in the mountains of Southern Europe, reaching the altitude of 7,000 feet on Mount Etna, and in the lower ground of higher latitudes, being found in the Scotch Highlands at an altitude of 2,200 feet above the sea. It also forms a vast belt of forest land from Kamschatka across Siberia and Russia into Sweden, and Norway; whilst in former ages it spread equally over the lowlands of Denmark, England, and Ireland, as is proved by its occurrence beneath the peat-bogs and in the submerged forests of these countries.

The Scotch Fir is much planted on sandy soil in hilly situations throughout England, since it will flourish in many instances where the more rapid-growing larch will not. This is the case, for example, with the Bagshot Sand area of north and west Surrey, and with the Lower Green-sand wastes of the middle of that county, and of Bedford-shire; and far better is it that those immense tracts of country should thus be turned to account by the tree-planter, than that they should be abandoned to the heather. An anecdote of the seventeenth century may possibly point to the indigenous character of this species as far south as Stafford-shire. At Warton, in that county, there were then thirty-six very large Firs, several reaching 120 feet in height, and one even exceeding 140 feet, and having a girth of nearly 15 feet. The tenants who for many generations held the farm on which these trees stood, bore the name of Firchild, an ancestor having been found under one of the trees.

Accustomed as we are to the short, much-branched stems of our deciduous, or hardwood trees, the Pine is to us the very type of lofty uprightness. Its straight stem, seldom exceeding twelve feet in girth, attains a height of from fifty to a hundred feet or more; but most of us who remember such from our earliest years will echo Hood's reminiscence of their impressive grandeur:

"I remember, I remember
The fir-trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky.
It was a childish ignorance;
But now 'tis little joy
To know I'm further off from heaven
Than when I was a boy."

One of the great beauties of the tree is its rough reddish bark, made up of flaky scales, and deeply ridged down the stem, giving it a curiously mottled effect. The branches are not usually large in proportion to the trunk, but they are given off numerously in whorls, so that, when the trees are grown close together, the lower boughs die off, and, as Shakespeare says--

"Knots, by the conflux of meeting sap,
Infect the sound Pine, and divert his grain,
Tortive and errant from his course of growth."

The leaves, or "needles," are given off in pairs from the axil of a fringed membranous sheath. The number of needles thus grouped together on what is termed a "dwarf shoot" is one of the distinctive characters of the subdivisions of the genus Pinus. The needles of the Scotch Fir do not exceed two or three inches in length, although in allied species they are sometimes as much as a foot long; they are grooved along their upper surface, curved and often twisted, and finely toothed throughout their length; and they remain on the tree for two or three years. The arrangement of the resin-passages and other constant features in the microscopic character of the interior of the leaf, seen in a cross-section, have been used as a means of discriminating the species of the genus. It is the remarkable dark indigo-tinted colour of the needles that lends to the tree the air of gloom with which it is generally associated, an effect which is heightened by the brown needle-carpeted ground beneath, silent and bare, since, owing to the absence of light, scarcely anything will grow. At a slight distance the young leaves produce quite the impression of a bluish haze, which no doubt led the laureate to associate the "thick mysterious boughs" of the Pine with "many a cloudy hollow."

The tree generally flowers in May, its flowers being "monoecious," that is, both male or pollen-bearing ones, and female, or seed-bearing ones, being borne on the same tree. The former are small yellow spikes of scales, each scale bearing a single two-chambered anther; and when the pollen is discharged--producing as it does in the Grampians those "showers of sulphur" that once amazed and alarmed the ignorant beholders--the whole catkin falls. The female cones on the other hand remain, of course, until the seeds they contain have been ripened and discharged. They occur generally in twos or threes, each, when young, of a purplish color and an ovoid outline, tapering conically to a point and at first erect and stalkless, but after fertilization hanging by short stalks in a drooping position. The scales that make up the cone are not many in number: their points wither, and they become woody so as to present at the surface of the cone a series of hard rhombic or roughly-hexagonal plates, known as "apophyses," each rising in a recurved central point, forming collectively well-defined spirals closely packed together. It is not, as a rule, until the second or third year that the seeds ripen: in fact, the pollen, when it has fallen upon the ovule, or immature seed, sends out a tube which takes more than a year in penetrating to the embryo-sac. The scales of the cone then bend outwards, so as to let the winged seeds escape from between them. Thus it is that the close packing of the scales serves, until the seeds are ripe, every purpose of the closed ovary which distinguishes "Angiosperms"--as are the vast majority of our flowering plants--from such "gymnospermous," or naked-seeded, plants, as the Firs, Yews, Cedars, and Junipers.

The seeds, which in some allied species are large enough to be valuable as human food, occur in pairs at the base of each scale, and are furnished with a brown membranous wing three times their length. This closely resembles, and performs the same purpose as, the "samaras," or winged fruits, of Elms and other trees, the disposal of the seed away from the parent tree by the agency of the wind being the object in either case. The curiously-formed beak of the cross-bill, a bird that sometimes visits our islands, is specially adapted for the extraction of Pine-seeds. The nutty flavor of these seeds, their slowness in ripening, and the difficulty of extracting them, did not escape the notice of the emblem-writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. With them it was a type of the happy results of persevering labor. Camerarius, for instance, gives a plate of a man holding a Pine-cone, or "fir-apple," with a motto to the effect that "thus it is not possible to arrive at virtue, worth, or praiseworthy deeds, save through many toils and difficulties, but the after-fruits thereof are most sweet." The internal structure of the ripe seed and its germination are of interest, as the "cotyledons," or first leaves, develop their green coloring-matter while still within the seed and thus excluded from light; and they are so deeply divided as to appear like a whorl of many leaves rather than a single pair, from which fact the name "Polycotyledons" was formerly applied to the group.

Few plants yield a greater variety of useful substances than the Scotch Fir. Tar, pitch, turpentine, resin, and deal are the chief, its timber being imported under various names, such as Dantzic and Riga Pine, according to the port of shipment. Though the timber varies considerably, that of the best varieties is of a deep brownish-red colour. The quality varies considerably according to the situation, that grown on well-drained slopes being better than that produced in wet land, where in fact the tree never flourishes.

Pines are commonly raised from seed in nurseries, but in suitable situations it multiplies freely by self-sown seeds. Darwin, in the "Origin of Species," gives a striking case of this, illustrating the struggle for existence. Near Farnham, in Surrey, "there are extensive heaths, with a few clumps of old Scotch Firs on the distant hill-tops: within the last ten years large spaces have been enclosed and self-sown Firs are now springing up in multitudes, so close together that all cannot live. On looking closely between the stems of the heath, I found a multitude of seedlings and little trees which had been perpetually browsed down by the cattle. In one square yard I counted thirty-two little trees; and one of them, with twenty-six rings of growth, had during many years tried to raise its head above the stems of the heath, and had failed."

At first conical in general outline, its branches rising slightly from the trunk, the Scotch Fir with us reaches full maturity in from seventy to a hundred years, and is generally felled at a less age; but in Norway it is stated to grow much more slowly, and to have reached an age of four hundred years. When old, the tree assumes a spreading flat-topped cedar or mushroom-shaped outline; and its boughs are often twisted into gnarled forms. Though generally associated in the minds of poets and painters with mountain scenery, the finest Pines are probably grown in more sheltered, lowland, but not damp situations.

Whilst, in his sonorous verse, Milton brings before us

"the tallest Pine
Hewn on Norwegian hills to be the mast
Of some great ammiral;"

Mr. Ruskin, in his graphic prose, has described one of the most wonderful effects of Pines in a landscape, though, as he points out, it has only been noticed by two of our poets. "When," says he, "the sun rises behind a ridge of Pines, and those Pines are seen from a distance of a mile or two against his light, the whole form of the tree, trunk, branches and all, becomes one frost-work of intensely brilliant silver, which is relieved against the clear sky like a burning fringe, for some distance on either side of the sun." This phenomenon it is to which Shakespeare alludes when he makes the heroic but ill-fated Richard II. speak of the sun:

"When from under this terrestrial ball
He fires the proud top of the eastern Pines;"

and this, too, Wordsworth refers to more precisely in his "Stanzas composed in the Simplon Pass":

"My thoughts become bright like yon edging of Pines
On the steep's lofty verge: how it blacken'd the air!
But, touched from behind by the sun, it now shines,
With threads that seem part of his own silver hair."

Learn more about your ancestry at The Beautiful Trees

About me

  • I'm Douglas Fir
  • From San Jose, California, United States
  • I am pretty quiet. I prefer to sit and think.
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