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Featured Plant

August

Abies bracteata

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Scientific name: Abies bracteata

Family: Pinaceae

Plant type: Coniferous, evergreen tree 

Environment: Part shade, well-drained soil

Uses: Specimen tree 

About

The Santa Lucia fir (Abies bracteata), also known as bristlecone fir, is an evergreen conifer endemic to California and is considered by some to be the rarest fir species in North America.

 

Bristlecone fir is only found in the northern Santa Lucia Mountains in Monterey and San Luis Obispo Counties on the central California coast. In this range, bristlecone firs grow on steep slopes and canyons that, historically, have burned infrequently because of a lack of fuel. Fossil records, however, show that the species was once more widespread in western North America. 

 

Given this limited range, in addition to other factors, today the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List considers Abies bracteata to be Near Threatened. The species also experiences threats because of a decline in the quality of its habitat due to Sudden Oak Death, poor regeneration, and a lack of genetic diversity. It also faces threats from the establishment of nonnative species such as French broom (Genista monspessulana). 

Abies bracteata is an unusual fir and differs from most other Abies in its morphology. One of its most unique characteristics are the elongated bracts found on its cones, hence one of its common names bristlecone. These cones will break apart in the Fall, releasing winged seeds. Dissimilarly to most firs, the Santa Lucia fir has stiff, sharply tipped needles. The largest bristlecone fir is found in Monterey County and, when last measured in 2016, was over 125 ft tall. The species is also known to live for over 200 years.

In the Santa Lucia Mountains, the bristlecone fir is an important part of its habitat, providing food and shelter for birds, insects, and small mammals. The seeds in particular are eaten by squirrels, moths, and wasps. The species has few human uses outside of its ornamental value; however, the resin was use for incense in early Spanish missions in the region.  

IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS: Text and Photos by Victoria Stewart 

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