The Kamchatka or Graceful Fir Grove, which is surrounded by a deciduous forest of Erman’s birch in the lower reaches of the Novy (New) Semyachik River, is one of the taiga conifer islands of Kamchatka. The native Itelmen people have known about and avoided this forest for more than 250 years. The grove inspired fear in the Itelmen because of its mystique. Even today two of its mysteries remain unresolved — its origin and taxonomy.
Some believe that this grove survived the glacial epoch. Before the Ice Age, fir was widespread and was one of the main components of dark coniferous taiga forests. Glaciers and periods of cooling have eliminated conifers from the peninsula’s vegetation. But on recent maps of the Central Kamchatka lowland, in the valley of the Kamchatka River and in some other places, there are fragments of taiga and scattered groups of conifer islands. The Graceful Fir Forest is one of them.
There are several other hypotheses about the origin of this forest. For example, some think that the grove was planted during some sort of ritual. One interesting version of the grove’s appearance is that it was planted by ancient seafarers, a legend also documented by S.P. Krasheninnikov. In describing the “Shemech” River and its lagoon, he wrote about the conifer forest for the first time: “For this one river, there are two things worthy of noting — 1) near its source it is a raging torrent with great wellsprings, and 2) on the southern side of the said inlet there grow a few conifer trees on low hills, whereas such trees were nowhere to be found elsewhere on Kamchatka. The said forest is protected by the Kamchadals, so none of them can take an axe to it or even dare touch it, because they believe in the tradition of their elders, which tells of many occasions during which anyone who dared touch the forest met a disastrous end. Or rather, the rumor has it that said forest grew on the bodies of Kamchadals campaigning against the enemies and, having grown so hungry that they ate only larch bark, died eventually in this said place.”
A visit to the “botanical enigma of the peninsula” leaves a lasting impression, as if one has just glimpsed one of the Earth’s mysteries!
Karl von Ditmar was the first scientist to study the forest in 1854. Although, according to some sources, Steller visited it in person in 1744. The well-known Kamchatka silviculturists V.G. Turkov and V.A. Shamshin carried out the first detailed analysis of its forest structure in 1961.
In 1901, V.L. Komarov, the great botanist and the first researcher of Kamchatka flora, studied specimens sent to him, and described them as a separate species from Sakhalin fir, giving them the name Graceful (Kamchatka) fir. In autumn of 1909, his expedition was near the forest, but Komarov himself did not visit it. The taxonomy of the species is still under debate. Later, in 1909, after seeing additional specimens, V.L. Komarov also began to waver in his conclusions.
In the 1970s, stationary investigations were carried out. A.T. Naumenko postured that the fir grove was an example of complex forest biogeocenosis with a certain degree of regeneration. It probably took several thousand years to form.
The forest consists of about 30,000 fir trees on an area of 22 hectares. Most experts consider the species name — Graceful fir (Abies gracilis) — a misnomer. These trees are actually stunted, thick-bodied, and barely tapering. Often these trees have multiple or dry tops and numerous dry boughs on their trunks.
The forest stand is dense. Maximum tree height is 17 meters (mean 13 meters). The maximum tree age is 225 years (mean 130 years). The seed-bearing period begins at the age of 70 years and ends at 160 years.
The bark color is gray, more rarely light-grey, and almost doesn’t change with age. The trunks and branches are usually covered with lichens.
About 200 trees extend out into the surrounding Erman’s birch forest, moving from the central area of the fir forest for 200–400 meters, while as much as 20% of the fir grove itself is occupied by Erman’s birch.
Sixty nine species of vascular plants grow under the fir forest canopy, and 31 species of mammals and 27 species of birds are found here.
The Graceful fir is an important scientific, historical, esthetic, and educational natural phenomenon.