1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fir

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FIR, the Scandinavian name originally given to the Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris), but at present not infrequently employed as a general term for the whole of the true conifers (Abielineae); in a more exact sense, it has been transferred to the “spruce” and “silver firs,” the genera Picea and Abies of most modern botanists.

The firs are distinguished from the pines and larches by having their needle-like leaves placed singly on the shoots, instead of growing in clusters from a sheath on a dwarf branch. Their cones are composed of thin, rounded, closely imbricated scales, each with a more or less conspicuous bract springing from the base. The trees have usually a straight trunk, and a tendency to a conical or pyramidal growth, throwing out each year a more or less regular whorl of branches from the foot of the leading shoot, while the buds of the lateral boughs extend horizontally.

In the spruce firs (Picea), the cones are pendent when mature and their scales persistent; the leaves are arranged all round the shoots, though the lower ones are sometimes directed laterally. In the genus Abies, the silver firs, the cones are erect, and their scales drop off when the seed ripens; the leaves spread in distinct rows on each side of the shoot.

The most important of the firs, in an economic sense, is the Norway spruce (Picea excelsa), so well known in British plantations, though rarely attaining there the gigantic height and grandeur of form it often displays in its native woods. Under favourable conditions of growth it is a lofty tree, with a nearly straight, tapering trunk, throwing out in somewhat irregular whorls its widespreading branches, densely clothed with dark, clear green foliage. The boughs and their side-branches, as they increase in length, have a tendency to droop, the lower tier, even in large trees, often sweeping the ground—a habit that, with the jagged sprays, and broad, shadowy, wave-like foliage-masses, gives a peculiarly graceful and picturesque aspect to the Norway spruce. The slender, sharp, slightly curved leaves are scattered thickly around the shoots; the upper one pressed towards the stem, and the lower directed sideways, so as to give a somewhat flattened appearance to the individual sprays. The elongated cylindrical cones grow chiefly at the ends of the upper branches; they are purplish at first, but become afterwards green, and eventually light brown; their scales are slightly toothed at the extremity; they ripen in the autumn, but seldom discharge their seeds until the following spring.

EB1911 - Fir - Fig. 1.jpg
Fig. 1.—Norway Spruce (Picea excelsa). Male Flowers. A, branch
bearing male cones, reduced; B, single male cone, enlarged; C, single
stamen, enlarged.

The tree is very widely distributed, growing abundantly on most of the mountain ranges of northern and central Europe; while in Asia it occurs at least as far east as the Lena, and in latitude extends from the Altaic ranges to beyond the Arctic circle. On the Swiss Alps it is one of the most prevalent and striking of the forest trees, its dark evergreen foliage often standing out in strong contrast to the snowy ridges and glaciers beyond. In the lower districts of Sweden it is the predominant tree in most of the great forests that spread over so large a portion of that country. In Norway it constitutes a considerable part of the dense woods of the southern dales, flourishing, according to Franz Christian Schübeler, on the mountain slopes up to an altitude of from 2800 to 3100 ft., and clothing the shores of some of the fjords to the water’s edge; in the higher regions it is generally mingled with the pine. Less abundant on the western side of the fjelds, it again forms woods in Nordland, extending in the neighbourhood of the coast nearly to the 67th parallel; but it is, in that arctic climate, rarely met with at a greater elevation than 800 ft. above the sea, though in Swedish Lapland it is found on the slope of the Sulitelma as high as 1200 ft., its upper limit being everywhere lower than that of the pine. In all the Scandinavian countries it is known as the Gran or Grann. Great tracts of low country along the southern shores of the Baltic and in northern Russia are covered with forests of spruce. It everywhere shows a preference for a moist but well-drained soil, and never attains its full stature or luxuriance of growth upon arid ground, whether on plain or mountain—a peculiarity that should be remembered by the planter. In a favourable soil and open situation it becomes the tallest and one of the stateliest of European trees, rising sometimes to a height of from 150 to 170 ft., the trunk attaining a diameter of from 5 to 6 ft. at the base. But when it grows in dense woods, where the lower branches decay and drop off early, only a small head of foliage remaining at the tapering summit, its stem, though frequently of great height, is rarely more than 11/2 or 2 ft. in thickness. Its growth is rapid, the straight leading shoot, in the vigorous period of the tree, often extending 21/2 or even 3 ft. in a single season. In its native habitats it is said to endure for several centuries; but in those countries from which the commercial supply of its timber is chiefly drawn, it attains perfection in from 70 to 90 years, according to soil and situation.

EB1911 - Fir - Plate 1-seedA.jpg EB1911 - Fir - Plate 1-seedB.jpg EB1911 - Fir - Plate 1-seedC.jpg
EB1911 - Fir - Plate 1-picA.jpg EB1911 - Fir - Plate 1-picB.jpg
SILVER FIR (Abies pectinata).
A, Cone and foliage.
SPRUCE FIR (Picea excelsa).
B, Cone and foliage.
EB1911 - Fir - Plate 1-picC.jpg EB1911 - Fir - Plate 1-picD.jpg
HEMLOCK SPRUCE (Tsuga canadensis)
C, Cone, seed and foliage.
DOUGLAS FIR (Pseudo-tsuga Douglasii).
D, Cone, seed and foliage.
Photos by Henry Irving.
EB1911 - Fir - Plate 2-picA.jpg EB1911 - Fir - Plate 2-seedAB.jpg  EB1911 - Fir - Plate 2-picB.jpg
CYPRESS (Cupressus sempervirens). A, Cone and branchlets.   JUNIPER (Juniperus communis). B, Fruit and foliage.
EB1911 - Fir - Plate 2-picC.jpg EB1911 - Fir - Plate 2-seedCD.jpg
EB1911 - Fir - Plate 2-picD.jpg
ARAUCARIA (A. imbricata, Chile pine or monkey-puzzle).
C, Seed-bearing cone and a single scale with seed.
YEW (Taxus baccata).
D, Seed and foliage.
Photos by Henry Irving.
EB1911 - Fir - Fig. 2.jpg
Fig. 2.—Norway Spruce (Picea excelsa).
Cones; scale with seeds. A, Branch bearing
(a) young female cones, (b) ripe cones,
reduced. B, Ripe cone scale with seeds,

In the most prevalent variety of the Norway spruce the wood is white, apt to be very knotty when the tree has grown in an open place, but, as produced in the close northern forests, often of fine and even grain. Immense quantities are imported into Britain from Norway, Sweden and Prussia, under the names of “white Norway,” “Christiania” and “Danzig deal.” The larger trees are sawn up into planks and battens, much used for the purposes of the builder, especially for flooring, joists and rafters. Where not exposed to the weather the wood is probably as lasting as that of the pine, but, not being so resinous, appears less adapted for out-door uses. Great quantities are sent from Sweden in a manufactured state, in the form of door and window-frames and ready-prepared flooring, and much of the cheap “white deal” furniture is made of this wood. The younger and smaller trees are remarkably durable, especially when the bark is allowed to remain on them; and most of the poles imported into Britain for scaffolding, ladders, mining-timber and similar uses are furnished by this fir. Small masts and spars are often made of it, and are said to be lighter than those of pine. The best poles are obtained in Norway from small, slender, drawn-up trees, growing under the shade of the larger ones in the thick woods, these being freer from knots, and tougher from their slower growth. A variety of the spruce, abounding in some parts of Norway, produces a red heartwood, not easy to distinguish from that of the Norway pine (Scotch fir), and imported with it into England as “red deal” or “pine.” This kind is sometimes seen in plantations, where it may be recognized by its shorter, darker leaves and longer cones. The smaller branches and the waste portion of the trunks, left in cutting up the timber, are exported as fire-wood, or used for splitting into matches. The wood of the spruce is also employed in the manufacture of wood-pulp for paper.

The resinous products of the Norway spruce, though yielded by the tree in less abundance than those furnished by the pine, are of considerable economic value. In Scandinavia a thick turpentine oozes from cracks or fissures in the bark, forming by its congelation a fine yellow resin, known commercially as “spruce rosin,” or “frankincense”; it is also procured artificially by cutting off the ends of the lower branches, when it slowly exudes from the extremities. In Switzerland and parts of Germany, where it is collected in some quantity for commerce, a long strip of bark is cut out of the tree near the root; the resin that slowly accumulates during the summer is scraped out in the latter part of the season, and the slit enlarged slightly the following spring to ensure a continuance of the supply. The process is repeated every alternate year, until the tree no longer yields the resin in abundance, which under favourable circumstances it will do for twenty years or more. The quantity obtained from each fir is very variable, depending on the vigour of the tree, and greatly lessens after it has been subjected to the operation for some years. Eventually the tree is destroyed, and the wood rendered worthless for timber, and of little value even for fuel. From the product so obtained most of the better sort of “Burgundy pitch” of the druggists is prepared. By the peasantry of its native countries the Norway spruce is applied to innumerable purposes of daily life. The bark and young cones afford a tanning material, inferior indeed to oak-bark, and hardly equal to that of the larch, but of value in countries where substances more rich in tannin are not abundant. In Norway the sprays, like those of the juniper, are scattered over the floors of churches and the sitting-rooms of dwelling-houses, as a fragrant and healthful substitute for carpet or matting. The young shoots are also given to oxen in the long winters of those northern latitudes, when other green fodder is hard to obtain. In times of scarcity the Norse peasant-farmer uses the sweetish inner bark, beaten in a mortar and ground in his primitive mill with oats or barley, to eke out a scanty supply of meal, the mixture yielding a tolerably palatable though somewhat resinous substitute for his ordinary flad-brod. A decoction of the buds in milk or whey is a common household remedy for scurvy; and the young shoots or green cones form an essential ingredient in the spruce-beer drank with a similar object, or as an occasional beverage. The well-known “Danzig-spruce” is prepared by adding a decoction of the buds or cones to the wort or saccharine liquor before fermentation. Similar preparations are in use wherever the spruce fir abounds. The wood is burned for fuel, its heat-giving power being reckoned in Germany about one-fourth less than that of beech. From the widespreading roots string and ropes are manufactured in Lapland and Bothnia: the longer ones which run near the surface are selected, split through, and then boiled for some hours in a ley of wood-ashes and salt, which, dissolving out the resin, loosens the fibres and renders them easily separable, and ready for twisting into cordage. Light portable boats are sometimes made of very thin boards of fir, sewn together with cord thus manufactured from the roots of the tree.

The Norway spruce seems to have been the “Picea” of Pliny, but is evidently often confused by the Latin writers with their “Abies,” the Abies pectinata of modern botanists. From an equally loose application of the word “fir” by our older herbalists, it is difficult to decide upon the date of introduction of this tree into Britain; but it was commonly planted for ornamental purposes in the beginning of the 17th century. In places suited to its growth it seems to flourish nearly as well as in the woods of Norway or Switzerland; but as it needs for its successful cultivation as a timber tree soils that might be turned to agricultural account, it is not so well adapted for economic planting in Britain as the Scotch fir or larch, which come to perfection in more bleak and elevated regions, and on comparatively barren ground, though it may perhaps be grown to advantage on some moist hill-sides and mountain hollows. Its great value to the English forester is as a “nurse” for other trees, for which its dense leafage and tapering form render it admirably fitted, as it protects, without overshading, the young saplings, and yields saleable stakes and small poles when cut out. For hop-poles it is not so well adapted as the larch. As a picturesque tree, for park and ornamental plantation, it is among the best of the conifers, its colour and form contrasting yet harmonizing with the olive green and rounded outline of oaks and beeches, or with the red trunk and glaucous foliage of the pine. When young its spreading boughs form good cover for game. The fresh branches, with their thick mat of foliage, are useful to the gardener for sheltering wall-fruit in the spring. In a good soil and position the tree sometimes attains an enormous size: one in Studley Park, Yorkshire, attained nearly 140 ft. in height, and the trunk more than 6 ft. in thickness near the ground. The spruce bears the smoke of great cities better than most of the Abietineae; but in suburban localities after a certain age it soon loses its healthy appearance, and is apt to be affected with blight (Eriosoma), though not so much as the Scotch fir and most of the pines.

The black spruce (Picea nigra) is a tree of more formal growth than the preceding. The branches grow at a more acute angle and in more regular whorls than those of the Norway spruce; and, though the lower ones become bent to a horizontal position, they do not droop, so that the tree has a much less elegant appearance. The leaves, which grow very thickly all round the stem, are short, nearly quadrangular, and of a dark greyish-green. The cones, produced in great abundance, are short and oval in shape, the scales with rugged indented edges; they are deep purple when young, but become brown as they ripen. The tree also occurs in the New England states and extends over nearly the whole of British North America, its northern limit occurring at about 67° N. lat., often forming a large part of the dense forests, mostly in the swampy districts. A variety with lighter foliage and reddish bark is common in Newfoundland and some districts on the mainland adjacent. The trees usually grow very close together, the slender trunks rising to a great height bare of branches; but they do not attain the size of the Norway spruce, being seldom taller than 60 or 70 ft., with a diameter of 11/2 or 2 ft. at the base. This species prefers a peaty soil, and often grows luxuriantly in very moist situations. The wood is strong, light and very elastic, forming an excellent material for small masts and spars, for which purpose the trunks are used in America, and exported largely to England. The sawn timber is inferior to that of P. excelsa, besides being of a smaller size. In the countries in which it abounds, the log-houses of the settlers are often built of the long straight trunks. The spruce-beer of America is generally made from the young shoots of this tree. The small twigs, tied in bundles, are boiled for some time in water with broken biscuit or roasted grain; the resulting decoction is then poured into a cask with molasses or maple sugar and a little yeast, and left to ferment. It is often made by the settlers and fishermen of the St Lawrence region, being esteemed as a preventive of scurvy. The American “essence of spruce,” occasionally used in England for making spruce-beer, is obtained by boiling the shoots and buds and concentrating the decoction. The resinous products of the tree are of no great value. It was introduced into Britain at the end of the 17th century.

The white spruce (Picea alba), sometimes met with in English plantations, is a tree of lighter growth than the black spruce, the branches being more widely apart; the foliage is of a light glaucous green; the small light-brown cones are more slender and tapering than in P. nigra, and the scales have even edges. It is of comparatively small size, but is of some importance in the wilds of the Canadian dominion, where it is found to the northern limit of tree-vegetation growing up to at least 69°; the slender trunks yield the only useful timber of some of the more desolate northern regions. In the woods of Canada it occurs frequently mingled with the black spruce and other trees. The fibrous tough roots, softened by soaking in water, and split, are used by the Indians and voyageurs to sew together the birch-bark covering of their canoes; and a resin that exudes from the bark is employed to varnish over the seams. It was introduced to Great Britain at the end of the 17th century and was formerly more extensively planted than at present.

The hemlock spruce (Tsuga canadensis) is a large tree, abounding in most of the north-eastern parts of America up to Labrador; in lower Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia it is often the prevailing tree. The short leaves are flat, those above pressed close to the stem, and the others forming two rows; they are of a rather light green tint above, whitish beneath. The cones are very small, ovate and pointed. The large branches droop, like those of the Norway spruce, but the sprays are much lighter and more slender, rendering the tree one of the most elegant of the conifers, especially when young. When old, the branches, broken and bent down by the winter snows, give it a ragged but very picturesque aspect. The trunk is frequently 3 ft. thick near the base. The hemlock prefers rather dry and elevated situations, often forming woods on the declivities of mountains. The timber is very much twisted in grain, and liable to warp and split, but is used for making plasterers’ laths and for fencing; “shingles” for roofing are sometimes made of it. The bark, split off in May or June, forms one of the most valuable tanning substances in Canada. The sprays are sometimes used for making spruce-beer and essence of spruce. It was introduced into Great Britain in about the year 1736.

The Douglas spruce (Pseudo-tsuga Douglasii), one of the finest conifers, often rises to a height of 200 ft. and sometimes considerably more, while the gigantic trunk frequently measures 8 or 10 ft. across. The yew-like leaves spread laterally, and are of a deep green tint; the cones are furnished with tridentate bracts that project far beyond the scales. It forms extensive forests in Vancouver Island, British Columbia and Oregon, whence the timber is exported, being highly prized for its strength, durability and even grain, though very heavy; it is of a deep yellow colour, abounding in resin, which oozes from the thick bark. It was introduced into Britain soon after its rediscovery by David Douglas in 1827, and has been widely planted, but does not flourish well where exposed to high winds or in too shallow soil.

Of the Abies group, the silver fir (A. pectinata), may be taken as the type,—a lofty tree, rivalling the Norway spruce in size, with large spreading horizontal boughs curving upward toward the extremities. The flat leaves are arranged in two regular, distinct rows; they are deep green above, but beneath have two broad white lines, which, as the foliage in large trees has a tendency to curl upwards, give it a silvery appearance from below. The large cones stand erect on the branches, are cylindrical in shape, and have long bracts, the curved points of which project beyond the scales. When the tree is young the bark is of a silvery grey, but gets rough with age. This tree appears to have been the true “Abies” of the Latin writers—the “pulcherrima abies” of Virgil. From early historic times it has been held in high estimation in the south of Europe, being used by the Romans for masts and all purposes for which timber of great length was required. It is abundant in most of the mountain ranges of southern and central Europe, but is not found in the northern parts of that continent. In Asia it occurs on the Caucasus and Ural, and in some parts of the Altaic chain. Extensive woods of this fir exist on the southern Alps, where the tree grows up to nearly 4000 ft.; in the Rhine countries it forms great part of the extensive forest of the Hochwald, and occurs in the Black Forest and in the Vosges; it is plentiful likewise on the Pyrenees and Apennines. The wood is inferior to that of Picea excelsa, but, being soft and easily worked, is largely employed in the countries to which it is indigenous for all the purposes of carpentry. Articles of furniture are frequently made of it, and it is in great esteem for carving and for the construction of stringed instruments. Deficient in resin, the wood is more perishable than that of the spruce fir when exposed to the air, though it is said to stand well under water. The bark contains a large amount of a fine, highly-resinous turpentine, which collects in tumours on the trunk during the heat of summer. In the Alps and Vosges this resinous semi-fluid is collected by climbing the trees and pressing out the contents of the natural receptacles of the bark into horn or tin vessels held beneath them. After purification by straining, it is sold as “Strasburg turpentine,” much used in the preparation of some of the finer varnishes. Burgundy pitch is also prepared from it by a similar process as that from Picea excelsa. A fine oil of turpentine is distilled from the crude material; the residue forms a coarse resin. Introduced into Britain at the beginning of the 17th century, the silver fir has become common there as a planted tree, though, like the Norway spruce, it rarely comes up from seed scattered naturally. There are many fine trees in Scotland; one near Roseneath, figured by Strutt in his Sylva Britannica, then measured more than 22 ft. round the trunk. In the more southern parts of the island it often reaches a height of 90 ft., and specimens exist considerably above that size; but the young shoots are apt to be injured in severe winters, and the tree on light soils is also hurt by long droughts, so that it usually presents a ragged appearance; though, in the distance, the lofty top and horizontal boughs sometimes stand out in most picturesque relief above the rounded summits of the neighbouring trees. The silver fir flourishes in a deep loamy soil, and will grow even upon stiff clay, when well drained—a situation in which few conifers will succeed. On such lands, where otherwise desirable, it may sometimes be planted with profit. The cones do not ripen till the second year.

The silver fir of Canada (A. balsamea), a small tree resembling the last species in foliage, furnishes the “Canada balsam”; it abounds in Quebec and the adjacent provinces.

Numerous other firs are common in gardens and shrubberies, and some furnish valuable products in their native countries; but they are not yet of sufficient economic or general interest to demand mention here.

For further information see Veitch’s Manual of Coniferae (2nd ed., 1900).