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Bristlecone Fir,
Abies bracteata
(D. Don) Nutt.
The fir with the lightest needles is the Colorado Fir however. Bristlecone fir needles are flat, 1.5 to 2.5 inches long, upcurved, have white bands called stomata along the length of the lower side, and are generally 2 ranked.  Found in the upper portion of the crown are the female cones which distinguish it from all other native firs.  The outstanding feature of these cones, which earn this species its namesake, are the long (.5 to 1.5 inch), slender, golden brown, needle like bracts sticking out from the scale tips, giving it a bristly appearance.  The cones themselves are light purplish brown, 3 to 4 inches long and contain winged seeds which are mostly dispersed by

Trees of North America- A guide to field identification-a Golden Field Guide from St. Martin's Press © 2002 By C. Frank Brockman p.30

The Encyclopedia of North American Trees by Sam Benvie. Firefly Books Ltd., 2000 Buffalo, NY © 2000 Sam Benvie p.25

USDA, NRCS. 2011. The PLANTS Database (<http://plants.usda.gov/>, 22 August 2011). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA.

Sullivan, Janet 1993. Abies bracteata. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ [2011, August 22].

Conifers.org, Abies bracteata

Virginia Tech. Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation for Abies bracteata

Ovulate Bristlecone Fir cone.
Photo citation: © 1995 Saint Mary's College of California,
Brother Alfred Brousseau
Common Names: Santa Lucia Fir, Silver Fir

State List: CA

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Synonyms: Abies bracteata D. Don ex Poiteau
                 Abies venusta (Dougl.) K. Koch
North American native distribution range for Abies braceata, Bristlecone Fir
Map courtesty USDA NRCS PLANTS Database
Abies bracteata is native only to California
Cited as the rarest fir in the world, the bristlecone fir is a native conifer found only in the Los Padres National Forest of Big Sur, California.  Discovered in 1831 by Thomas Coulter, this evergreen tree species usually grows between 30 and 100 feet but under optimal conditions, Abies bracteata may reach 150 feet in height and 3 feet in diameter.  A medium sized and slow growing tree species, the crown is spire like, and unusual for a fir, it has dense, persistent lower branches close to the ground.  Both branch and twig tips often curve up at the ends.  The bud scales are non-resinous. Unlike most fir trees, which have deep dark green needles, those of the bristlecone fir are much lighter.
Abies bracteata cones have distinct bracts which extend far beyond the end of the cone scales
wind.  Flowering in May, male flowers are yellow and are found underneath the needles.  A. bracteata has thin, reddish-brown bark that ranges from smooth to scaly or slightly ridged and furrowed. 


In the Santa Lucia Mountains on rocky or gravelly sites of granite origin and between elevations of 700 and 5,200 feet, dwell the small populations of Bristlecone Fir.  Their limited range makes them rare and it has been put on a 'Watch List' by the California Native Plant Society.  It is not, however, classified as endangered or threatened as populations are stable.  It prefers mild climates consisting of moist cool summers where it is bathed in fog, followed by mild winters. Annual rainfall needs are 35 to 40 inches and will show signs of stress when adequate water is not available.  This native tree is a shade species and is prone to sun scorch when suddenly exposed to or grown in direct sunlight.  A. bractaeta is extremely fire sensitive and it has been suggested that fire plays a crucial role in the success and even site location of this species.  Seemingly, the only old growth stands of bristlecone fir occur almost exclusively on fireproof sites with little to no flammable ground cover.   Seed germination is best at temperatures below 73
°F with large seed crops occuring every 3 to 5 years.

Pests, Diseases, and Elements

The seeds are highly parasitized by chalcids, sometimes consuming up to 100% of the years crop.  In addition to being fire senstive, Bristlecone Fir
Bristlecone Fir. Photo citation: © 1995 Saint Mary's College of California, Brother Alfred Brousseau
is also drought sensitive, saplings in particular, so care should be taken in landscape applications to ensure moisture needs are met. 


As with other tree species with low population numbers, there is no commercial value for Bristlecone fir.  Throughout California, it is becoming a popular ornamental species where conditions are favorable for growth.  Historically, the resin was used in pioneer Spanish missions and settlements as incense
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