The trees are found throughout much of North and Central America, Europe, Asia, and North Africa, occurring in higher elevations and mountains over most of the range.
Noble fir, Fraser fir, and Balsam fir are very popular Christmas trees, generally considered to be the best trees for this purpose. Many are also very decorative garden trees.
Firs have absolutely no insect or decay resistance when exposed to the outside environment. Therefore, their wood (commonly called North American timber, SPF (spruce, pine, fir), or whitewood in the timber industry) is generally recommended for cheaper structural construction and furniture. Left outside, the wood doesn’t usually last more than 12 to 18 months, depending on the type of climate.
Identifying North American Firs
Fir needles are typically short and mostly soft with blunt tips. The cones are cylindrical and upright. The shape of a fir tree is very narrow with rigid, upright, or horizontal branching as opposed to the “drooping” branches characteristic of some spruce trees.
Unlike those on spruce trees, fir needles are fat and flat (think “FFF”). You would not be able to roll a fir needle around on your fingertip, whereas a spruce needle has four sides and can be rolled. Fir needles are fairly soft, but spruce needles are sharp.
Fir needles are attached to twigs typically in two rows. The needles grow outward and curve up from the twig, forming a flattish spray. There is a distinct lack of needles on the bottom sides of the twigs, unlike spruces that carry needles in a whirl all around the twig. In true firs, the base of each needle is attached to a twig by something that looks like a suction cup. That attachment is much different than spruce needles, which are are attached with a peg-like petiole. This small woody projection makes a spruce’s bark much rougher than a fir’s.
The cones of fir trees are very different when comparing species. The true fir cones are rarely seen up close as they grow toward the top of the tree. They are an elongated oval. They disintegrate on the limb (almost never dropping to the ground intact), perch upright, and often ooze resin.
Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea)
The cold-loving balsam fir is North America’s northernmost fir. Although it has an extensive range in Canada, it grows primarily in the northeastern U.S. Its needles are flat with two white bands on the underside. They are attached spirally to the branches, but twist around to form two rows on one plane. You can see little disks where the needles join the branch.
The balsam fir is small to medium in size, with a conical shape, and prefers moist—even swampy—boreal forest environments. It can be identified by its most distinguishing feature: a narrow and pointed, spire-like crown. The trees are shallow-rooted and often get blown over in windy conditions.
Pacific Silver Fir (Abies amabilis)
While the bark of other firs is characteristically furrowed, that of a mature Pacific silver fir, native to the Pacific Coast and Cascade Range of the Northwest, is distinctly gray and scaly, growing in peculiar plates. Juvenile trees exhibit smoother bark but with resin blisters all over. As a shade-tolerant tree, it’s often found in the understory beneath much bigger hemlocks.
The needles are similar to those of the grand fir—dark green on top with white lines on the undersides. But the needles point forward and upward, rather than lying flat as grand fir needles do. The cones sit upright and turn from green to purple. When they disintegrate, they leave a cone core spike on the branches.2
California Red Fir (Abies magnifica)
Found in the mountains of Oregon, Nevada, and California—especially in the Sierra Nevada range—the California red fir is treasured for its lumber, used extensively for framing and plywood. It’s also grown commercially for Christmas trees. When left to mature, these trees can reach impressive heights of 200 feet (even 250 feet in rare cases), with a diameter of 6.5 feet.
The bark of young trees is gray, smooth, and has resin blisters. As the tree ages, the bark roughens and develops fissures, taking on a more orange-red color. The blue-green needles are four-sided, not flat. Needles also curve like the ends of a hockey stick where they attach to their branches. They’re attached spirally to the branch, but curve around to be above it.
Cones are yellow-green when young, brown when mature, and release seeds to the wind in the autumn.
Noble Fir (Abies procera)
The noble fir shares its northwest range with the Pacific silver fir, so how does one tell the two apart? For starters, the noble fir grows much taller, up to 300 feet. In fact, despite dwarf varieties being commonly used as Christmas trees, it’s the tallest and all-around largest member of the true firs (its botanical name, “procera,” literally means “tall”).4 Naturally, its cones are also much larger than that of the Pacific silver fir.
You can identify a noble fir by its needles, too. They’ll be blue-green in color, with white bands on each side, and arranged in a spiral on the shoots. They’re shaped like hockey sticks and curve away from the branch as if they’ve been combed forward.
Grand Fir (Abies grandis)
Like noble firs, grand firs are also notably huge, growing up to 200 feet. The two, however, differ in their needles. Unlike the noble fir’s hockey stick-like needles, grand firs have flat needles with rounded and notched ends. They are dark green with white bands underneath and a groove on the top.
The bark on young trees is smooth and covered in resin blisters and white spots, becoming more furrowed over time.
Both are considered subalpine, but the grand fir is hardier to elevations below 5,000 feet. It occurs in the Cascades and in the northern portion of the U.S. Rocky Mountains.
White Fir (Abies concolor)
The white fir is perhaps the easiest true fir to identify because of its flat, bluish-to-silvery-green needles that extend from all sides of the branch and curve outwards and upwards. The needles measure between 1.5 to 3 inches in length. Cones can grow to 6 inches and are olive green when young, turning purple then brown with maturity. They stand upright on the branches and disintegrate eventually.
This tree, which grows in a pyramidal shape, has a broad range that stretches from the Cascades to mountainous regions of northern Mexico. It can be found in California, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, too. Outside of its native range, it’s commonly grown for ornamental purposes and on Christmas tree farms.
Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri)
The Fraser fir is rare in its natural Appalachian range but extensively planted and grown for Christmas trees. It is closely related to the balsam fir, another common Christmas tree variety, both known for their soft needles and pleasant fragrance.
A unique characteristic of the Fraser fir is that its branches angle slightly upwards, giving it a compact appearance. Its needles are sometimes very dark green and occur in two rows. They are flattened with a groove on the upper side and two white bands on the underside, which is where its pores (stomata) are located. Needles are 1/2-1 inch long, darker green on the top and lighter on the bottom.
The Fraser fir produces cones with a “bract” that extends past the scales, giving the cones the appearance of drooping on the branch. This is the biggest difference from the balsam firs, which do not have these visible cone bracts.
It can reach a maximum height of 80 feet and a diameter of 1 to 1.5 feet. Younger trees have smoother gray bark with resin blisters; with age, the bark develop thin, papery scales.
Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)
Although certainly one of the most well-known varieties, the Douglas or Doug fir is not a true fir “because the cones hang down off the branch and fall off whole.” It belongs to the genus Pseudotsuga and is native only to western North American forests. It can grow to an enormous 300 feet in height, second only to redwoods.
Because they stay intact, Douglas fir cones can often be found (in copious quantities) in and under the tree. This unique cone has a three-pointed bract (snake tongue) between each scale. Besides this, the Doug fir is easy to identify by its needles, which whirl around the branch like those of a spruce but are notably softer. They also taper at the attachment point to the branch, unlike other fir needles.
The needles stick out from all around the branch, resembling a bottle brush; but the needle tips are soft compared to spruce’s sharp points. Some young specimens growing in the understory may still have flat needles, in which case you’ll be able to identify the tree by looking for the iconic buds that are pointed, papery, and reddish-brown