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The Korean fir: A rising star abroad, fading fast at home

Did you know that a popular Christmas tree overseas is indigenous to South Korea's mountains?

April 2, 2024 - 15:31 By No Kyung-min
British plant collector and explorer Ernest Henry Wilson poses beside a Korean fir tree during his visit to Jeju Island in 1917. (World Natural Heritage Jeju)

In November last year, New York-based Good Housekeeping magazine recommended the 20 best types of Christmas trees for the upcoming season.

Among them was a relative newcomer: the Korean fir, also known as “gusang namu (tree)” in Korean. It was described as a “new kid on the block” by the magazine, referring to its emerging presence, “popping up,” thanks to its distinctive shape and color.

Ironically, however, this indigenous Korean tree is not commonly used as a Christmas tree in Korea, as small, plastic Christmas trees are more common because of their low price and ease of storage.

Furthermore, the trees are vanishing at an alarming rate due to climate change and development.

(Getty Images)

Global recognition

The Korean fir maintains an evergreen shade in a narrow, pyramid shape throughout the year, with a bluish-white color underneath its needles and a fresh pine aroma. It also produces large cones in May and June, reaching up to 10 centimeters in size and displaying vibrant colors such as yellow, purple and red, growing upright on its branches.

Native to South Korea's mountains at high altitudes, the tree was initially collected by Emile Joseph Taquet and Urbain Faurie, French Catholic priests doing missionary work and botanical collecting here, during their exploration of Hallasan, Jeju Island in the early 1900s.

They donated a type specimen, with the scientific name, Abies koreana, to the Smithsonian Institution.

The name of the tree was first documented and published in 1920 in an article by British plant collector and botanist Ernest Henry Wilson titled, "Four new conifers from Korea," in the Journal of the Arnold Arboretum.

“From youth to middle age, it is a handsome tree, densely branched and with its lower branches sweeping the ground; the habit is rather broadly pyramidal, and the lustrous green leaves with their white undersurfaces add character to the tree,” he writes in his article.

Decades later, people in North American and European countries have come to appreciate its picturesque appearance, leading to its cultivation for commercial purposes.

Berg Cregg, a professor of horticulture at Michigan State University, says on the university’s YouTube Channel that the Korean fir is emerging as an alternative to the Fraser fir as a Christmas tree in the US. He emphasized its appeal, particularly highlighting the attractiveness of its silvery underside.

It appeals to individuals in search of a compact indoor Christmas tree plant, as it gradually reaches a height of 10 to 15 meters. Its slow growth rate -- around 20 to 30 years to reach full maturity -- suggests a likelihood of it maintaining a full and compact shape, even when young.

It is not only utilized during the Christmas season but also in landscaping as an ornamental yard tree.

There are over 90 varieties of Korean fir, according to data from the National Institute of Biological Resources. The price of the tree may vary depending on the variety and the retailer. Online retailers in the UK and US were selling Korean firs at $50 to $100 for approximately one meter.

Potted Korean fir tree plants decorated for the Christmas season (Christmas Trees Direct)

Dying here

In South Korea, the tree primarily thrives on the country's tallest mountain, Hallasan, located on Jeju Island. In addition, it can be found on high peaks in the southern region, between 1,000 and 1,900 meters in altitude, such as Jirisan, Deogyusan and Sobaeksan.

However, the Korean fir has become challenging to spot in its natural habitat over the past two decades, as its populations have declined due to climate change -- elevated winter temperatures, reduced rainfall and intense typhoons in particular.

In 2010, the International Union for Conservation of Nature added the coniferous tree to its Red List of Threatened Species. In the same year, the Korean government designated it as a climate-sensitive biological indicator species, along with other animals and plants that are vulnerable to climate change and require ongoing monitoring.

Choi Jang-hyuk, chief director of Save the Koosalnang, an association dedicated to preserving the Korean fir on Jeju Island, points to a combination of global and local factors behind the diminishing fir population.

"Globally, climate change, coupled with the establishment of recreational facilities such as golf courses in mountainous areas, has brought the fir tree to the brink of extinction," he told The Korea Herald.

He underscored the urgency of joint efforts from government bodies, businesses and community organizations to reverse this trend. In addition to hosting events to encourage the participation of local residents in restoration efforts for Korean fir trees, his group has concentrated on bringing in Korean fir trees from overseas, he added.

The National Institute of Forest Science, affiliated with the Korea Forest Service, has been leading the effort to preserve Korean fir trees. These efforts involve planting seedlings in mountainous regions that offer optimal conditions for growth while utilizing DNA technologies to enhance the genetic diversity of the tree.

A snow-covered grove of Korean firs on Jeju Island's Hallasan (World Natural Heritage Jeju)