Fall Equinox 1998 || Volume I, Number 2

Perfect Pattern of Silvan Perfection on the Symmetrical Plan,
the Rare Santa Lucia Fir.
Abies bracteata (D. Don) Nuttall [Abies venusta (Douglas) Koch].

By David Rogers 1998

Scattered in suitable habitats in the Santa Lucia Mountains is the rarest and most narrowly endemic of all species of fir, the Santa Lucia Fir. This species is also the most distinct of all firs, so much so that it is the only taxon of the subgenus Pseudotorreya (the Bracteatae of some authors). The unique morphological features include the bracts subtending the cone scales, which terminate in long and narrowly linear appendages similar to the leaves, the large spindle-shaped and resinless winter twig buds, the long and sharply pointed leaves (which resemble the leaves of Torreya of the Yew Family, and hence the subgeneric name), and the very narrow and sharply pointed spire-like crowns, which resemble the crowns of fir and spruce species of subalpine and arctic Santa Lucia Firs, Abies Bracteata regions.  Santa Lucia Firs occur in the upper watersheds of the Carmel, Little Sur, Big Sur, Arroyo Seco, San Antonio and Nacimiento Rivers, and in the watersheds of a number of coastal streams which drain directly into the Pacific Ocean. To the north populations are scattered from Skinner's Ridge to Miller's Canyon, with additional populations east of Tassajara Road in Anastasia Canyon and in the canyon of Calaboose Creek. Southward the populations gradually become restricted to the Coast Ridge, although there is a population on the north slope of Junipero Serra Peak (in the canyon of Santa Lucia Creek). The southern-most documented populations are located in the watershed of the Arroyo de la Cruz (near Hearst's Castle), in northwestern San Luis Obispo County. The largest concentrations occur from the Ventana Double Cone area to Miller's Canyon, and in the vicinity of Cone Peak. The trees are largely restricted to canyon bottoms, talus slopes and rock outcrops or cliffs (especially on north or partially north facing slopes), and most populations occur between about 2,000 feet and 5,000 feet.

Santa Lucia Firs are densely foliated evergreen trees which range from about 10 m. (33') tall in exposed habitats, to well over 30 m. (100') tall in moist canyon bottoms. Very large trees can reach heights up to about 50 m. (160') tall. The singular trunks are about as straight as straight can be in nature, and are rarely free of branches for more than a few feet above the ground. The leaves are narrowly linear and about 2.8 to 6 cm. long; the upper surfaces are flat, dark green and shiny, while the lower surfaces are pale due a coating of a light bloom, excepting for the dark green and protruding midrib.  Pollen is produced in pale yellow catkin-like strobili, and trees in this reproductive stage (which usually starts in early May) are very conspicuous. The cones, which are at first green with a purplish-brown tinge but become purplish-brown when fully mature, are about 5 to 10 cm. long, and produced on the upper side of the branches.   The cone scales have strongly attached bracts which terminate in leaf-like awns about 2 to 4 cm. long .  The cones mature in late summer, and begin to break apart in September. The seeds are obovate-cuneate, about 8 to 10 mm. long, and terminated with thin wings about 10 mm. long.

Discovery of the Santa Lucia Fir

While the Esselen and Salinan Indians (in whose traditional territories the species occurs) certainly had their own names for this species, the padres at Mission San Antonio de Padua were reported to have known the trees as Incensio, for they used its resin in the manufacturing of incense (Jepson 1910).  The first botanist to collect a specimen of Santa Lucia Fir was David Douglas, who found the species on a ridge west of Mission San Antonio in the spring of 1831, and as he noted that he also found Sugar Pine (Pinus lambertiana) (Hooker 1836), the site of collection was probably in the vicinity of Cone Peak.  In the following year (or two) Thomas Coulter visited the same general area (Griffin 1975), and on this trip Mr. Coulter collected a specimen of Pinus coulteri (Big Cone or Coulter Pine) which David Don named in honor of its collector.  The uniqueness of the Santa Lucia Fir caught the interest of subsequent collectors prominent in the botanical history of California, and most made expeditions to the Santa Lucia Mountains to collect specimens.  The list includes Karl Hartweg, William Lobb, William Beardsley, Albert Kellogg, William Brewer, Alice Eastwood, William Dudley and Willis Jepson.

David Douglas and Thomas Coulter sent their Santa Lucia Fir specimens to England, where the specific name venusta was applied to the Douglas specimen, and bracteata to the Coulter specimen (during the 1800's the species was bounced around between the genera Pinus [pine], Abies [fir] and Picea [spruce]). For many years afterwards one or the other of the specific names were applied to the Santa Lucia Fir in botanical literature, but as bracteata was apparently the first published, this is the proper name according to the rules of botanical nomenclature.   As for the common names applied to this species, Santa Lucia Fir has been the most often used name in literature published from 1905 onward, but Sudworth (1908) used the name Bristlecone Fir, and many people still know this species by this name.  Prior to the use of either of these names Silver Fir was the accepted common name by local people familiar with the species and botanical authors (re. Veitch 1881, Eastwood 1897 & 1905, Sargent 1898 & 1905, and Dudley 1902; Dudley proposed the name Santa Lucia Silver Fir to distinguish it from other species known by this name).  Other common names that have been applied to this species include Leafy-Coned Silver Fir, Fringe-Cone Fir and Bracted Fir.

During the mid 1800's English botanists and horticulturists were keenly interested in the "new" species that were being sent from California, and in an article published in the July 9, 1853 edition of The Gardener's Chronicle we find the following passage:

"Mr. Jeffrey, the Scotch collector in Oregon, does not appear to have found this tree [Abies bracteata; the species had erroneously been reported to occur in Oregon], Hartweg sent none home from California [the Douglas and Coulter specimens did not have viable seeds]; so that this charming species has long been one of the greatest desiderata among unintroduced trees.   We are therefore peculiarly happy to announce to all eager coniferomaniacs that Messrs. Veitch & Co. are about to send it into market, as announced in an advertisement in another column.  Their industrious collector, Mr. William Lobb, transmitted seeds some years ago, from which a crop of fine healthy plants has been obtained."
 Santa Lucia Firs are now widely distributed in botanical and private gardens, but for reasons unknown, garden specimens frequently do not exhibit the narrowly conical crowns which are so typical of the trees of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Examples can be found at the Tilden Botanical Garden northeast of Berkeley and at the Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco; the trees at these gardens have upwardly ascending branches which form broadly conical crowns.

Natural History of the Santa Lucia Fir

Fossil evidence from two deposits in western Nevada dating to the Miocene period (about 13 million years ago) demonstrates that the Santa Lucia Fir was formerly more widely distributed in western North America.  The deposits in which fossilized Abies bracteata (A. scherrii Axelrod) were found are also interesting in that they portray a silvan flora transitional between broadleaf trees and conifers that was in many ways similar to that found in the Santa Lucia Mountains at the present time.  In fact many of the fossils represent plants that were closely related to (if not the direct ancestors of) plants Santa Lucia Firs, Abies Bracteatawhich currently exist in the Santa Lucia Mountains.  Of the plants associated with the ancient broadleaf forest, specimens of the liveoak Quercus hannibalii made up to 85% of the specimens in some of the formations.  This species was very similar to Canyon Live Oak (Quercus chrysolepis), the current overall dominant species at intermediate and higher elevations in the Santa Lucia Mountains.  Other trees and shrubs of the Santa Lucia Mountains which had counterparts in the Miocene deposits include Arroyo Willow (Salix lasiolepis), Buck Brush (Ceanothus cuneatus), Coffee Berry (Rhamnus californica), Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Dusky Willow (Salix melanopsis), Interior Live Oak (Quercus wislizenii), Madrone (Arbutus), Maple (Acer), Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus), Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa), Sycamore (Platanus), Tan Oak (Lithocarpus), and Toyon or Christmas Berry (Heteromeles). Conifers represented in the fossil flora which have living counterparts, but not in the Santa Lucia Mountains, include Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), White Pine (Pinus monticola), White Fir (Abies concolor), Shasta Red Fir (Abies magnifica var. shastensis), and Weeping Spruce (Picea breweriana) (Axelrod 1976a).

During the Miocene climatic conditions were warmer and more mild than at the present time, and included regular summer rainfall, thus supporting in western Nevada a rich assemblage of arborescent plants in an area that is now dominated by sagebrush scrub.  As the climate began to cool through the Pliocene (about 5.2 to 1.6 million years ago), leading to ice ages of the Pleistocene (about 1.6 million to 11,000 thousand years ago), it is likely that the Santa Lucia Fir could not tolerate these colder and drier conditions, and thus became restricted to the more mild climates of coastal mountains.  While it is probable that Santa Lucia Firs were more widely distributed in California prior to the Holocene, fossil evidence has not been found, although fossil evidence demonstrates that during the ice ages of the early Quaternary (about 1 million years ago) a mixed conifer forest extended southward through a low and discontinuous chain of ridges that are now the coast ranges and mountains of southern California (these mountains were later elevated to their current heights).  Represented in a fossilized flora deposited on the floor of the San Jacinto Valley (in southern California) are Sugar Pine (Pinus lambertiana), Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa), Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) and Quaking Aspen (Populous tremuloides); the area now supports a semi-desert flora (Axelrod 1976 a & b, Raven & Axelrod, 1978).

With the evolution of California's mediterranean (summer drought) climate during the current post-glacial period (the Holocene), which started about 11,000 years ago, most of central and southern California's coniferous forests became extinct.  Major factors contributing to the decline of these forests were the onset of annual summer droughts, higher rates of evaporation, and (perhaps especially to) what appears to have been a very xerothermic (hot-dry) period between about 8,000 and 4,000 years ago. Beginning perhaps as early as the Miocene, tectonic forces have been (and still are) uplifting the coastal mountains of California, and by the Holocene some of these mountain ranges had reached sufficient heights in order to preserve fragments of montane coniferous forests that are now largely restricted to the Sierra Nevada and north Coast Ranges.  Along with the endemic Santa Lucia Fir, montane conifers preserved in Santa Lucia Mountains include Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa), Sugar Pine (Pinus lambertiana), Big Cone Pine (Pinus coulteri) Sargent Cypress (Cupressus sargentii), Knobcone Pine (Pinus attenuata), Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii, which in the Santa Lucia Mountains is restricted to coastal slopes) and Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens).  In a similar fashion, a formerly much more extensive coastal coniferous forest became increasingly restricted in its distribution, and species preserved on the coastal slopes and adjacent areas of the Santa Lucia Mountains include Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens, which at one time ranged as far south as Ventura County), Monterey Pine (Pinus radiata), Monterey Cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) and Gowen Cypress (Cupressus goveniana) (Axelrod 1976 a & b, Raven & Axelrod, 1978).

Current Conditions Affecting the Santa Lucia Fir

Santa Lucia Firs are almost entirely restricted to two very dissimilar habitats: deep and moist canyon bottoms and dry rocky slopes and ledges.  The only factor which these habitats have in common is that they are both generally fire proof, and as Santa Lucia Firs have thin barked trunks and densely foliated crowns which extend to (or nearly to) the base of the tree, they are readily consumed by forest fires. Another detrimental factor affecting this species is the destruction of seeds caused by a chalcid, a small wasp of the genus Megastigmus (Wolf 1967).  The wasps deposit their eggs directly into embryonic seeds when the young cones are still soft, and the larva consume the inner portions of the seeds while the outer casings continue to grow.  After the maturation of the seed casings the insects exit by drilling a small round hole through this structure, leaving behind what appears to be (to a casual observer) a viable seed. Fortunately the effects that the seed chalcids have on the reproduction of the Santa Lucia Fir is cyclical, for in many years abundant crops of viable seeds are produced.  Based on personal observation which is echoed in reports in botanical literature going back more than 100 years, in areas where the species is well established it is common to see trees at all stages of their life cycles, and in the Church Creek area I have seen young trees forming thickets nearly as dense as chaparral.  Due to the rarity of the species and the remoteness of most of the groves, exploitation of the Santa Lucia Fir has been essentially nonexistent, although in 1910 Jepson stated a report that trees had been logged near Cape San Martin "forty nine years ago" (thus in about 1861), and this report echoes another report that in the mid 1800's New England whalers used to cut trees along the Big Sur coast to replace masts broken by storms (Lambert 1989).  As nearly all of the trees occur within the boundaries of the Monterey Division of Los Padres National Forest, and perhaps more than 90% within the Ventana Wilderness, they are protected from future exploitation, and unless for major unforeseen attacks by insects, diseases or increased aridity, Abies bracteata will probably hold its own in its wilderness abodes far into the distant future.

Santa Lucia Firs, Abies Bracteata - distribution map

Santa Lucia Firs, Abies Bracteata - cones


1976a.    Evolution of the Santa Lucia Fir (Abies bracteata) Ecosystem. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 63: 24-41.
1976b.    History of the Coniferous Forests, California and Nevada. University of California Publications in Botany 70: 1-62.

1902.    A Notable California Fir. Forestry and Irrigation 8 (5); 193-198.

1897.    The Coniferae of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Erythea 5; 71-74.
1905.    A Handbook of the Trees of California. California Academy of
Sciences, San Francisco.

1968.    Santa Lucia Personality--Bristlecone Fir. Newsletter of the
California Native Plant Society
4 (2).
1975.    Plants of the Highest Santa Lucia and Diablo Range Peaks,
California. USDA Forest Service Research Paper PSW 110/1975.

1972.    The Distribution of Forest Trees in California. USDA Forest Service
Research Paper PSW 82/1972. Reprinted with a supplement in 1976.

1836.    A Brief Memoir of the Life of Mr. David Douglas, with Extracts from
His Letters. Companion to the Botanical Magazine 2: 152.

1910.    The Silva of California. Memoirs of the University of California,
vol. 2, Berkeley.

1882.    Forest Trees in California.

1989.    Lambert Family: Hardy and Independent Pioneers. Carmel Valley Sun,
7/26/1989, p. 15.

1849.    The North American Sylva, vol. 3. Smith and Wistar, Philadelphia.

1968.    A Range Extension for the Rare Santa Lucia Fir.
The Four Seasons 2 (4); 18-20.

1978.    Origin and Relationships of the California Flora. University of
California Publications in Botany 72.

1898.    The Silva of North America, Volume 12, Coniferae. Houghton, Mifflin
and Company. Boston and New York.

1908.    Forest Trees of the Pacific Slope. U. S. Government Printing
Office, Washington, D. C.

1974.    The Ecology of the Santa Lucia Fir (Abies bracteata), a Narrow Endemic of California. Ph.d. thesis, Duke University, Durham, N.C. A copy is on file at the Science Library of the University of California at Santa Cruz.

1881.    A Manual of the Coniferae. James Veitch and Sons, Royal Exotic Nursery, Chelsea, England.

1967.    What's Bugging the Bristlecone Fir? The Four Seasons 2 (3); 2-5

Note: the first half of this article's title was coined from a description in Kellogg, 1882.

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