Captain Ken may be called by some a quibbler and by some laconic of utterance. Some find his usual costume of trousers gartered with cycle clips and brightly checked sweaters a sufficient deterrent to conversation in itself. Nonetheless he put a fine question to the company when last we foregathered four our monthly supper at the Tatler’s Waste-Bin. The fact is that besides fir (Abies spp.) and spruce (Picea spp.), Scots and Corsican pines were also called firs in the 18th century and there is not much that we can do about it.
So when William Marshall gives his trenchant account of Fisherwick: ‘But, perhaps, the most objectionable part of the operations at Fisherwick, is that of encumbering the park with Firs etc.’ Or when George Mason makes a similar complaint: ‘… when I see fir-trees in circular clumps choking up a meadow, or preposterously converted into shrubs under the branches of a forest-tree, they excite no other emotion than contempt for the planter’, we hardly know what they are about.
For myself I am less inclined to such sweeping dismissal of so many good plants, and take for myself instead, Smollett’s Matt Bramble ‘firs look dull and funereal in the summer season. – I must confess, indeed, that they yield serviceable timber, and good shelter against the northern blasts; that they grow and thrive in the most barren soil, and continually perspire a fine balsam of turpentine, which must render the air very salutary and sanative to lungs of a tender texture.’
In the notes that follow therefore I shall include an account of the merits of all the most commonly planted of our conifers, and hope to encourage a more dispassionate appreciation of their qualities.