Pinsapos, or Spanish Fir trees, are exceptionally rare. They are found in just a few mountain ranges in Andalusia and Morocco, with one of the largest pinsapo forests located in the volcanic soil of Sierra Bermeja. It was here that the trees were first introduced to the world of science in 1837, and today it remains one of the best places to visit these spectacular trees.
Sierra Bermeja (or Red Mountains) gets its name from the reddish soil and rock that make up the 1,450 meter (4750 foot) tall mountain range. The color is a remnant of the volcanic origin of the peaks, which also provides rich nutrients for the pine trees and pinsapos that grow plentifully on its slopes.
One of the most spectacular things about Sierra Bermeja is that it’s just 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the Mediterranean Sea, which is unusual for such tall mountains. From the peak of the mountain, you can see Estepona and the beach to the Southeast, Sierra de las Nieves to the East, and the charming white villages of Ronda to the North.
But the real main attraction is the pinsapar, or pinsapo forest, that covers the Northern side of the mountain. The indigenous Spanish fir thrives in the humid, temperate mountain range, and countless trees of all ages dominate the landscape. There is a path through the forest called paseo de los pinsapos, which winds down the mountain and over several natural water springs.
The most remarkable thing about the northern side of the mountain is just how much water runs down it. It’s also noticeably cooler than the side facing the Mediterranean, creating the perfect conditions for pinsapos to thrive. It’s easy to forget just how close it is to the beach.
Pinsapos are fortunate to still be around at all. They date back to before the Ice Age, and managed to survive thanks to the natural barrier formed by the mountains. Even today, the mountains protect the vulnerable pinsapo trees from the warm temperatures that bring tourists from around the world to Andalusia.
Over the past 50 years, careful conservation efforts have increased pinsapo populations dramatically. Once in danger of being entirely wiped out, numbers have increased nearly ten fold in the past half century, up to more than 5000 hectares (12,000 acres). They typically live up to 200 years, but the oldest pinsapo in the world could be as old as 550 years.
The trees received their first international exposure in 1837, when Swiss botanist Pierre Edmond Boissier first came to Andalusia to study them. Most of his work took place in Sierra Bermeja, and his book “Voyage Botanique dans le Midi de l’Espagne pendant l’annéee 1837” introduced the unusual fir to the scientific community.
A close look at the tree’s cones confirmed to Boissier that they were indeed firs, but they have a few other unique characteristics. The leaves of the abies pinsapo are thick and hard, and grow in circular patterns around branches that grow out horizontally. They can afford to grow horizontally since they aren’t found in areas with heavy snowfall. Its color is also unusual, with glaucous blue-green leaves and red, pink, or even purple cones.
Locals, of course, had known about the trees for quite some time. They were a valuable source of timber for the Spanish armada, and pinsapo beams were used in the construction of the Cathedral of Malaga. They were also an important material for the railway connecting the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula with towns further inland.
Today, pinsapo trees are protected by the Spanish government, and although they have recovered, they are still under threat by the heterobasidion annosum fungus. A warming climate has left the trees vulnerable to root rot, and for now the only solution local officials have found is burning the infected trees.
In a few decades, Spanish Fir trees might not be able to survive in Malaga at all. Regardless, the species will survive, although the paseo de los pinsapos might have to be moved from Sierra Bermeja to the colder ranges of Granada’s Sierra Nevada.
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