Tree 30–50 m × 1–2 m dbh. Crown broad-pyrmidal or -conical, open and domed or flat-topped with age. Bark of young trees smooth for many years, dark pinkish-grey with horizontal resin blisters; thick, rough, fissured, pinkish-brown or -grey and somewhat corky near the base in old trees. First order branches long, remaining somewhat upcurved or spreading horizontally with age, the lowest branches occasionally downswept. Branchlets firm, shining yellowish-grey to pale brown, grooved, with fine pubescence confined to grooves in first year shoots, glabrous thereafter. Vegetative buds ovoid-conical, large, 10 × 5 mm, not or only slightly resinous. Leaves pectinately arranged on vegetative shoots (assurgent only on coning shoots), 1.5–5(–6) cm × 2–4 mm, base curved or twisted, apex strongly bifid in young trees and on shaded shoots, weakly bifid, emarginate, or occasionally obtuse in old trees, pale or mid-green above, often somewhat yellowish, stomata confined to the undersides in two dull greenish-grey bands. Pollen cones solitary, pendulous, 2.5–3 cm long, yellowish. Seed cones short-pedunculate, cylindrical-conical, apex rounded or truncate, 7–13(–15) × 3–5 cm, yellowish green or green with yellow bracts when immature, maturing through greenish- or pruinose-yellow to yellowish brown; seed scales broad-flabellate, often congested near base of cone, 2–2.5 × 2.8–3.2 cm at midcone; bracts conspicuously exserted but sparsely set, the protruding part a stiff, outspreading or upright triangle. (Farjon 2017; Debreczy & Rácz 2011).
Distribution Japan Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku, Yakushima
Habitat Warm-temperate forests of low to medium elevations, (50–)300–1000(–1200) m asl, usually in humid environments such as river valleys. It avoids Honshu's western snowbelt. The climate is characterised by mild winters and hot, humid summers, cooler in the north. It is a component of mixed forests with a broad range of associates across its large range, including Fagus crenata, F. japonica, Castanea crenata, Carpinus spp., Quercus spp., Tsuga sieboldii, Cephalotaxus harringonii, Taxus cuspidata, Pinus parviflora, P. densiflora, Chamaecyparis obtusa*, Cryptomeria japonica*, Picea jezoensis subsp. hondoensis, Torreya nucifera, and more locally Pseudotsuga japonica and Sciadopitys verticillata. It is gradually replaced above 1000 m asl by A. homolepis. * often planted.
USDA Hardiness Zone 6-9
RHS Hardiness Rating H6
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
Some authors, including Bean (1976), refer to A. firma as the Japanese Fir, but given there are five firs native to Japan – four of them endemic – this is quite unhelpful. Momi Fir, derived from the Japanese vernacular momi-noki, is much better and less likely to cause confusion. Described in 1858, it was simultaneously introduced to cultivation in 1861 when John Gould Veitch and von Siebold sent seed home to England and Holland respectively; a share of at least one batch was dispatched to the United States the following year. It seems to have remained in cultivation ever since, though it has never become a particularly common tree despite its usefulness in certain climatic zones, especially the American south.
Supply of seed is unlikely to have been a limiting factor in this regard, as it is one of the most widespread of all the firs of Japan (Debreczy & Rácz 2011), although Mitchell notes the ‘near failure’ of the first introduction to Britain, but the more widespread success of another in 1881 (Mitchell 1972). Momi Fir has the most southerly distribution of the Japanese firs and the lowest altitudinal range. These factors make it more accessible than most of its compatriots, but they have also engendered certain traits that make it a vulnerable subject in gardens; early to flush, the young growth can be damaged by spring frosts in areas where these are commonplace.
The best example in the UK and Ireland was, for many years, a tree that grew at Pencarrow, Cornwall. Believed to have been from the original introduction, it died sometime in the 1960s. Indeed, for many years the best were concentrated in western Britain, and this, together with its propensity to suffer frost damage, perhaps fuelled a misconception that it is a tree only for milder districts (Mitchell 1972). Scrutiny of the Tree Register database reveals sizeable examples scattered all over the UK and Ireland by 2020, with trees exceeding 25 m in Co Meath, Surrey, Northumberland, Glamorgan, and Kent, as well as in the south west, where two exceed 30 m: one of 33 m in Wiltshire and one of 36 m in south Devon (Tree Register 2020). In recent years a meaningful new generation of Momi Fir has been planted in British arboreta, after several institutions targeted the species, including Westonbirt, the University of Oxford, and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and Edinburgh, collecting under the codes WJAP, OUJP, and EIKJE respectively.
After its introduction to Europe G.R. Hall sent seed to the US in 1862 (Jacobson 1996). It is not clear how the early plantings of Momi Fir fared there, but it is now an established feature of American collections, hardy to zone 6 as far north as Massachusetts (Warren & Johnson 1988). Interestingly, while its low-elevation south-Japanese origin has rendered it vulnerable to spring frosts, it has also endowed it with a usefulness rare among temperate conifers in North American horticulture: it is one of very few firs well suited to the heat and humidity of the southeast United States. There are fine specimens at the J.C. Raulston and C.R. Keith arboreta, for example, and Dirr calls it ‘the only viable [fir] for the south’ and notes successes in Georgia and Alabama (Dirr 2011). It is also proving to be a useful rootstock for other firs grown in this area (Hatch 2018–2020), and some nurseries now make a point of specifying the use of A. firma rootstock in catalogues. It is equally at home in parts of New Zealand and Australia, where it can be grown in climate zones 7–9 (gardensonline.com.au), but in common with all firs it needs adequate access to moisture if it is to thrive, and preferably high humidity.
Abies firma is among the most distinctive firs. Overall it has a slightly irregular, spiky appearance, its leaves are firm, broad, and leathery, with distinctly bifid apices; they are usually dark green, but can often be an unusual pale or slightly yellowish green. This suite of characters gives the species a very distinctive look, and it is unlikely to be confused with anything else in general cultivation. In the wild the same characters help to separate it from its natural vicariad A. homolepis, which replaces it at higher elevations in the mountains of Japan. Confusion with their naturally occurring hybrid, A. × umbellata, is unlikely, for this closely resembles A. homolepis in foliage. Confusion is most likely in well-stocked specialist collections where A. firma may be grown alongside its rarer relatives from central and western China, such as A. ernestii and A. chensiensis. In such situations the differences are more subtle, but in comparing material from these and other close relatives grown in the same climatic conditions (and in the absence of cones) the foliage of Momi Fir, with leaves firmer and more leathery than any other, will always help to distinguish it.
Few cultivars are known. Several have been named on account of their yellow- or golden-green foliage, which is really nothing more than the standard variation one should expect from this species. A ‘naturally’ yellowish-green Momi Fir can be useful in breaking up the rather samey greens of a pinetum, but if this colouration is too strong a plant can become catastrophically ugly. Clones named for their yellowness are mostly of the latter category.
A slow-growing, compact, pyramidal plant with respectable green leaves. It entered commerce in Germany in 1986, but was presumably selected at Bedgebury National Pinetum in the UK. To 1.5 m in ten years (Auders & Spicer 2012).
A selection that first appeared in the 2009 catalogue of the Oregon firm Buchholz & Buchholz. It forms a dense, compact pyramid with dark green leaves, to 2 m in ten years (Auders & Spicer 2012).
A little-known plant first recorded from cultivation in Japan in 1959. The leaves are irregularly cream-variegated (Auders & Spicer 2012).