The Gymnosperm Database

line drawing

Drawing of the largest known Pacific silver fir, on Goodman Creek [Robert Van Pelt] (Van Pelt 1996).


An old-growth tree about 130 cm dbh in the Miner's Creek drainage NE of Glacier Peak, WA. The forest is filled with very large Abies amabilis, Tsuga mertensiana and Tsuga heterophylla and has not experienced fire in at least several hundred years [C.J. Earle, 2003.09.01].


Mature tree with typical cone crop, Washington Pass rest area [C.J. Earle, 2003.08.17].


Foliage of a tree on the SW flank of Mt. Rainier, WA. The pale green foliage has emerged within the last few days [C.J. Earle, 1987.07.18].


Cone cut by a Douglas squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii), near Tuck Lake, Washington Cascades [C.J. Earle, 2002.09.28].


Cone partially consumed by a squirrel, same location [C.J. Earle, 2002].


Cone gleaned by a corvid, probably Perisoreus canadensis, same location [C.J. Earle, 2002.09.28].


Seeds with attached wings, same location [C.J. Earle, 2002.09].


Seedling near Hyas Lake, Washington Cascades [C.J. Earle, 2003.08.23].


Bark on a tree, ca. 40 cm diameter, along the North Fork Sauk River trail, northern Washington Cascades [C.J. Earle, 2006.08.06].


Tsuga mertensiana-Abies amabilis forest below Shark Peak, southern Washington Cascades [C.J. Earle, 2004.07.18].


Two advance regeneration trees growing near the base of a mature Tsuga mertensiana near Kendall Peak, central Washington Cascades [C.J. Earle, 1987.05.17].


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Conservation status

Abies amabilis

Douglas ex J. Forbes 1839

Common names

Pacific silver fir, white fir, red fir, lovely fir, amabilis fir, Cascades fir (Pojar and Mackinnon 1994, Peattie 1950), silver fir, sapin gracieux (Hunt 1993).

Taxonomic notes

Synonymy (Farjon 1998):


Trees to 24-46(75) m tall with 60-120 (260) cm dbh; straight, crown spirelike, with age becoming flat topped, cylindric. Bark light grey, smooth but for resin blisters, with age breaking into reddish-grey scaly plates. Branches diverging from trunk at right angles, short, stiff; twigs mostly opposite, darker brown abaxially, light brown adaxially, pubescence tan. Buds small, spherical, brown, globose, 6-9 mm diameter, with violet wax; basal scales short, broad, triangular, densely pubescent, usually not resinous, margins entire, apex sharp-pointed. Needles (0.7)1-2.5(4.0) cm × 1-3 mm, crowded, spreading forwards in 2 rows, overlapping above, nearly covering the branchlet, curved upwards on sun foliage, grooved and dark lustrous green above, somewhat flattened and silvery white with 5-6 stomatal rows on each side of midrib below, apex prominently notched; resin canals small, near margins and abaxial epidermal layer. Male cones at pollination red, becoming reddish yellow. Female cones erect, ovoid-cylindric, resinous, purple-grey then brown, 8-10(18) cm long × 3.5-5(7) cm, sessile, apex round to nipple-shaped; scales ca. 2 × 2 cm, finely pubescent; bracts hidden, purplish, about 1/2 height of scale. Seeds 10-12 × 4 mm, body tan; wing about as long as body, rose to tan; cotyledons 4-7 (Silba 1986, Little 1980, Hunt 1993).

A. amabilis is commonly found with A. lasiocarpa, A. grandis, and A. procera. If cones can be observed, it is easily distinguished from these other species by having considerably larger cones than the first three, and from A. procera by having considerably smaller cones that lack extruded bracts. Lacking cones, it can be distinguished by foliage and by habitat preference. A. bifolia and A. lasiocarpa both have at least a few stomata on the upper surface, and trees in sunny spots have a strong bluish cast, in comparison with A. amabilis. Sunny-site A. procera also has a strong bluish cast. A. lasiocarpa, and A. procera are also considerably less shade tolerant than A. amabilis and you will rarely see healthy saplings growing in the dense shade of a continuous Abies canopy; however A. amabilis saplings are common on such sites, sometimes forming the dominant understory species. A. grandis occasionally shows high shade tolerance too, but it is not common within the range of A. amabilis. A. amabilis leaves are straight, linear, spread to both sides of the shoot and are commonly densely laid upon the shoot. In comparison, A. procera leaves have a variable "hockey stick" shape, bent near the base, and so appear to be even more densely laid, completely obscuring the twig when viewed from above. A. grandis leaves, on the other hand, are more strictly pectinate, so that the twig can be easily seen. In habitat, A. amabilis is typically found at higher and wetter elevations than these other species. A. bifolia and A. lasiocarpa also occur at subalpine elevations, but typically on drier sites, and rarely in the company of other high-wet site conifers such as Tsuga mertensiana and Cupressus nootkatensis. A. procera, and A. grandis in areas where it grows near A. amabilis, typically occur at lower (montane) elevations, commonly in association with Pseudotsuga menziesii or Tsuga heterophylla.

Distribution and Ecology

US: SE Alaska, W Washington and Oregon, NW California; Canada: W British Columbia. Prefers deep, well-drained soils in cool, moist coastal forests, descending to sea level from Vancouver Island northwards, typically above 1000 m in Oregon and southwards, occurring to timberline (ca. 2300 m). Climate is maritime with long, snowy winters (Pojar and Mackinnon 1994). Fire is rare, typically occurring at intervals of centuries, and in any event A. amabilis is extremely intolerant of fire. See also Thompson et al. (1999). Hardy to Zone 5 (cold hardiness limit between -28.8°C and -23.3°C) (Bannister and Neuner 2001).

Distribution data from USGS (1999).

This species is characteristic of the montane zone of western British Columbia and the subalpine zone in western Washington and Oregon, where it may form mixed or monospecific stands and currently is widely distributed as advance regeneration beneath a canopy of mixed conifer species. Advance regeneration can germinate and grow under an A. amabilis conopy too dense to allow more than 10% ground cover in woody plants and herbs; it is commonly thought that these small trees subsist at least in part on carbon scavenged from root systems of canopy trees, with which their roots are often grafted. Advance regeneration trees less than 2 m tall are often more than 100 years old, and a tree may spend several centuries beneath the canopy before time and gap-phase dynamics allow it to enter the canopy. It is among the most shade-tolerant of all conifers. It has reportedly retained needles for as long as 53 years, a record exceeded only by Welwitschia mirabilis, with needle retention times in excess of 20 years quite common.

Especially in patchy stands or near the alpine timberline, A. amabilis is commonly found with a wide variety of other conifers, including A. lasiocarpa, A. magnifica, A. procera, A. grandis, Picea sitchensis, Pseudotsuga menziesii, Tsuga heterophylla, Tsuga mertensiana, and Cupressus nootkatensis. The most common understory shrub is Vaccinium alaskaense, with which it forms a distinctive vegetation type widespread in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains.

Big tree

The largest known was the Goodman Creek Tree, on Goodman Creek near Forks, Washington. This giant had a stem volume of 74 m3, dbh 237 cm, height 66.1 meters. The largest known living tree is the Cabin Lake Tree, on the north side of Black Mountain in Cypress Provincial Park, British Columbia. It has a stem volume of 63 m3, dbh 233 cm, height 46.9 meters. Only slightly smaller, the Hades Creek Fir in Olympic National Park, Washington, has a stem volume of 62 m3, dbh 210 cm, height 66.4 meters. The tallest known tree grows on the East Fork of the Humptulips River in Olympic National Forest, Washington. It stands 71.9 meters tall with a dbh of 140 cm (Van Pelt 2000).


The oldest confirmed age is 725 years for a specimen found by Ken Lertzman in Cypress Provincial Park, BC (Van Pelt 1996). Jan Henderson (pers. comm. 1990) reports ring counts of >800 years on repeatedly suppressed-and-released stumps in Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington.


Has been widely used, almost entirely in work done since 1980. Applications have included dendroclimatic reconstruction, ecosystem changes in old-growth montane and forest-tundra subalpine forests, dating and effects of volcanic debris flows, forest decline due to volcanic ash deposition, and impacts to tree growth from aluminum smelter emissions.


The pitch was chewed as gum by native peoples, the boughs were preferred for bedding or floor coverings, and the soft, brittle wood was chiefly used as firewood (Pojar and Mackinnon 1994).

It is an important timber species due to its wide distribution and potentially rapid growth; it is primarily a source of pulp. Once (as of 2017) it has served as the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree.


Fairly common in the subalpine zone within its range, and easily seen in Olympic, North Cascades and Mount Rainier National Parks (WA). It is more sparsely distributed in Oregon, though common enough in the high country of the Three Sisters Wilderness. In California, only dedicated searching will turn it up: near Hancock Lake (41.,42°N, 123.22°W) in the Marble Mountains, and in the Siskiyou Mountains between Copper Butte and Joe Creek (approx. 41.8°N, 123.2°W), localities at 1,700 to 2,133 meters elevation (Griffin and Critchfield 1972).


This species was discovered and named by David Douglas, Scots botanist. The epithet amabilis means "lovely."


Forbes, J. 1839. Pinetum Woburnense 125, pl. 44. Available at Google Books (accessed 2012.11.19).

See also

Bibliography of Dendrochronology.

Farjon, Aljos. 1990. Pinaceae: drawings and descriptions of the genera Abies, Cedrus, Pseudolarix, Keteleeria, Nothotsuga, Tsuga, Cathaya, Pseudotsuga, Larix and Picea. Königstein: Koeltz Scientific Books.
- Provides a detailed account, with illustrations.

FEIS database.

TROPICOS data record.

Last Modified 2018-01-20