I’ll admit it: I’m enamored with the majestic Santa Lucia Fir, Abies bracteata. The species is the rarest fir on the earth and can only be found on the rocky peaks or canyon bottoms in the Santa Lucia mountain range. Even within the mountain range it’s not a common tree and is limited to around two dozen groves sprinkled throughout the mountains. It’s a proud tree with a tall, narrow crown that is spire-like and sharply pointed, reminiscent of the subalpine fir in the mountainous regions of the Pacific Northwest but much larger, taller (up to 100 ft) and well adapted to survive in a region where severe drought, heavy winter rains, and fire are a regular occurrence.
- How does a non-fire resistant conifer survive in the coastal mountains of California where fire is a regular occurrence? The answer is in the topography. The location of the Santa Lucia Firs groves is largely dictated by fire. Unlike the redwoods with fire resistant bark, the Santa Lucia Fir has thin bark and keeps its lower branches making it non-resistant to fire and susceptible to fire injury. However, the tree is remarkably adapted to the reality of periodic fires through these mountains. Virtually all of the groves are found in “fire-proof” locations, either on precipitous cliffs or at the bottom of steep, rocky canyons that preclude the accumulation of plant litter and the growth of grass and brush that fuel fires. Thus, fire embers are limited in their penetration into the groves. The result is that most fires skip over the Santa Lucia Fir groves and they have survived in these mountains despite numerous fire episodes that have engulfed surrounding terrain.
- But how does a conifer that looks like it belongs in a cold weather climate survive the droughts and hot summers of the Santa Lucia Mountains? The answer is also in the topography. Stands of Santa Lucia Firs located on high peaks are typically found on north or northeast facing slopes that are sheltered from the rays of the sizzling summer sun. Similarly, canyon-bottom groves are situated in locations that provide ample shade, cool air flow and a source of moisture during the hot and dry summer months.
- Why is the Santa Lucia Fir endemic to the Santa Lucia Mountains? Did it once have a wider range? From my research, the history of the Santa Lucia Fir and how it arrived to the Santa Lucia Mountains is somewhat of a mystery, but the reason why it does not have a wider range is, you guessed it, also the result of topography. The following quote sums it up nicely: “As to why [the Santa Lucia Fir] is not found elsewhere in the West today we can ask ourselves: Where else can high equability, heavy winter rains with long dry summers, and large areas of fireproof topography be found. The answer is nowhere but the Santa Lucia Mountains for all of western North America” (Talley, Steven N. 1972.06.08. Notes concerning the status of ecological studies on Santa Lucia fir, Abies bracteata. http://www.conifers.org/pi/Abies_bracteata.php). The Santa Lucia Mountains are indeed unique and special, and the Santa Lucia Fir is but one of the many magical aspects of these mountains. Note that “high equability” refers to the close range of temperatures throughout the year that is characteristic of Mediterranean climate.
- Most agree the Santa Lucia Fir is a majestic tree and it’s now widely distributed in botanical and private gardens, but why is the narrow, spire-like crown not present in these plantings? The spire-like crown is immediately recognizable in the wild groves and it’s what makes the Santa Lucia Fir so magical. Age of the tree is almost certainly a factor as ornamental plantings are still generally young trees and the narrow crowns are almost exclusive to old-growth trees. Even in the wild, the young trees do not have the narrow crown and only the older trees take on the quintessential spire-like shape. However, even some older plantings of Santa Lucia Fir fail to take on the spire-like shape. For this reason I suspect topography is also a factor. The wild Santa Lucia Fir groves are located on precipitously steep slopes or deep, shady canyons which cause adaptations in the growth patterns, often forcing the firs to lean over and reach for the sky in search of sunlight.
One of the first things noticed when standing by a Santa Lucia Fir is its persistent lower branches which help to give the fir its beautiful conical shape. Moving closer to a branch, one must be careful not to touch the needles carelessly since they are unusually large (2 inches) and sharp-tipped. In fact, the tips are so sharp they can pierce the skin. The Santa Lucia Fir groves have a diverse set of neighboring trees and each grove seems to have different set of cohabitants making them even more unique and special. For instance, groves in the Big Sur River drainage often grow among redwoods while the groves on Cone Peak share the rocky slopes with Sugar Pines and Coulter Pines. In a few locations the fir can be found alongside incense cedars. In the Carmel River watershed, heritage oaks, sycamores and big leaf maples are common next to the firs and sometimes there are ponderosa pines.
Over the course of my travels in the Ventana and Silver Peak Wilderness I’ve seen many of the existing groves, but an expansive grove tucked into a rugged canyon of the Miller Fork is perhaps the finest of all. It’s my understanding that a larger grove once covered the flanks of Ventana Double Cone, but many of the trees were taken out in the Basin Fire of 2008. While large portions of the Ventana Double Cone grove were untouched in the fire (the especially fire-proof spots), the surface area of the grove was substantially reduced. Meanwhile, it appears the Miller grove was largely untouched by the fire. This deep, rocky canyon provides ideal conditions for the trees to thrive with moisture, shade and protection from fires. The result is a fantastic display of elegant old growth Santa Lucias with density that is rivaled by few other places in the range. It came as no surprise that the rugged, deep canyon where the Santa Lucias Firs thrive contains a pretty gorge where the canyon walls come in to the watercourse. This narrows feature is worthy of the trip in itself, but when combined with the old growth Santa Lucia Firs soaring above the canyon it makes for a magical experience. All photos are from Miller Canyon except photo 2 (Ventana Double Cone), photo 3 (Cone Peak) and photo 5 (Kandlbinder). Complete photo album here.