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Plant Profiles: Abies koreana

Abies koreana
Abies koreana

Drawing by Rene Eisenbart


Rabies Laurie Anna

Korean fir

Large, cone-shaped conifer; to 30 feet

Full sun and good drainage

Muck and shade

This is slow-growing, long-haul landscape tree


It's no easy task for a Bat Mitzvah girl to recommend a living Christmas tree. I've never had one, never bought one, and only recall decorating two. But if the opportunity came along, I'd do as many of you do and buy something I could integrate into the garden. So, as one plant nerd to another, here's my choice for a small recyclable conifer: Abies koreana.

At maturity (figure a couple of decades, since this is a slow grower), the Korean fir can be expected to reach an average of thirty feet. It needs only sun, good drainage, and time in order to thrive. Its habit, though pyramidal, is looser and more layered than that of our grand fir (A. grandis), giving it an indulgent, luxurious feel. Close up, its needles are short and chubby, glossy green on top and silver-lined below.

Sounds pretty generic, you say? What's the big deal? Cones, I answer. Fat dollops at least as profuse as raindrops, each one an unimaginable shade of Tootsie Pop purple. From a distance they read like flowers -- all the more amazing when you find out they're really composed of dry, woody scales.

These perky, promiscuous ornaments are in such a hurry they're already showing off when the young trees are barely knee-high. But before you get carried away with visions of these sugarplums, you need to know that firs develop cones only in late spring. The good news, of course, is what you then can look forward to, long after the (biodegradable) tinsel has turned to mulch.

Reasonably mature Korean firs are big sellers and include the narrow-spired, heavily coned 'Starker's Dwarf', which tops out at about six feet; 'Silberlocke' (syn. 'Horstmann's Silberlocke'), with silver-backed needles that curve up and twist around the stem; and 'Aurea', a slow-growing, golden-yellow four-footer. Because of unpredictable nursery stampedes, growers are sometimes caught short. I don't say this to discourage you, only to suggest that you prepare to settle for a somewhat smaller tree than the one you see in your mind's eye -- destined, nonetheless, to be a stirring Christmas memory with all the promise of a candy-colored spring.

• Check out the Talking Plants Tips on Caring for a Living Christmas Tree.

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    Plant Profiles are excerpted from Plant This! by Ketzel Levine


    Copyright © 2003 National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.