How To Identify Evergreen Trees Part 3: The Fir Tree!

How To Identify Evergreen Trees Part 3: The Fir Tree!

fir

There are so many wonderful varieties of Evergreen Trees available! While the layman may find themselves referring to all of them as just Pine Trees, you don’t have to be a trained arborist to tell each kind apart!

There are many varieties of Conifers out there and with a bit of closer inspection, you will see differences and be able to tell them apart like a pro!

Today in Part 3 of Evergreen ID - It’s all about the Fir Tree!

Fir Tree Basics 

With names like Grand and Noble, you know the Fir tree family holds some prestigious members!

fir trees

In the genus Abies, and members of the Pine Tree family, Fir Trees differ from Pines because of their shorter, stiff, needle-like leaves that aren’t sharp.

You can tell a Fir from a Spruce by its needles easily because Spruce needles are attached to the stems by small, stalk-like woody projections and are square and Fir are flat. While Pines carry their blunt needles in clusters, Firs have individual needles that grow out in a whirl all around the stem, along the entire branch.

Even where there are no needles along the branch, you’ll still see the little brown nubs left behind where the needles used to be. Giving the branches a stubbled texture.

Think of the three ‘F’ with these trees - Fir are Fat and Flat! You can’t roll them easily between your fingers.

Fir trees are your typical Christmas Trees and have that beautiful pyramidal shape as they grow! Typically featuring upright to horizontal branches (Spruce can have a drooping appearance). 

  • Flat needles are tightly packed, whirled along the entire stem in individual needles
  • The needles are directly attached to the stem
  • A citrusy scent when crushed
  • Upright-held female cones, when mature the scales fall away leaving bare stalks

From the Douglas, to Fraser, Balsam, and White (or Concolor), the Fir Tree family has some beautiful variety and range!

infographic

Fraser Fir trees are filled with dense needles that form in short spiked bottlebrushes around the stems. Dark green with grooved needles, the undersides have two silver rows. Typically having a more narrow crown, with a silver brown bark that can become scaly with age. Male cones can be yellow to purple and young female cones can be purple too. Mature female cones are held upright on the stems and have densely packed scales with papery tongues curling out from between each scale.

  • Short dark green needles with grooves
  • Two silver lines on the undersides
  • Yellow to purple male cones
  • Purple young female cones
  • Cones are held upright on the branches with papery ‘tongues’ curling out between each
  • Silver-brown bark becomes scaly with age
  • Mature trees have a uniformly pyramidal profile

Their aromatic bark and needles, plus their strong limbs make the Fraser a quality choice for a Christmas tree!

 

Balsam Firs are among the most aromatic of the Firs. Growing dense, dark-green, pyramidal Evergreens that have smooth bark with resin-filled blisters. The green needles seem to be attached to the stems by ‘suction cups’ and can sometimes have a bluish tone. The narrow cone-shaped canopy is typically found only in the furthest Northeastern parts of the US and Canada and demands abundant soil moisture and a humid environment.

  • Incredibly aromatic!
  • Green-blue needles seem attached to the branch by suction cup-like structures
  • Male cones can range from red to purple, to blue, green, or even orange
  • Young female cones are dark blue-gray, green-gray, purple, gray-brown, or violet-brown
  • Female cones are highly resinous and also held vertically from the stems
  • The smooth bark has resin-filled blisters along the trunk
  • Pyramidal to conical at maturity

The dramatic upright bluish-purple cones can be covered in crystalized white sap and turn brown when ready to fall apart. One of the most fragrant of the Fir trees!

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Concolor Fir trees are lighter, almost ghostly green to silvery white. The upward-curved twigs have a citrus scent, featuring little suction cups holding curved, sometimes upright sweeping needles like the Balsam. Male cones are red/violet and female cones have very resinous, shiny-looking immature cones in green to yellow and stand vertically from the stems like the Balsam. The flat scales form concentric layers that look like they have been stacked like those fancy hasselback potatoes!

  • Longer upward sweeping green to silvery powdery white needles
  • Much coarser-looking texture
  • Citrus-scented needles and bark
  • Male cones can be red to violet
  • Immature female cones are shiny resinous green to yellow
  • Cones held upright on the stems and have concentric stacked layers
  • The bark is ashy gray when young but turns gray-brown and furrowed when older
  • Horizontal branching forms a tidy pyramidal form with a domed crown

Also known as White Fir, you’ll find most Concolor Fir growing in the western US and Canada. A ghostly blue cultivar of the White Fir is the Blue Cloak White Fir, featuring hazy blue-green foliage and a unique layered and tiered branching pattern.

     

    Douglas Fir Tree (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

pine cone

While not technically a true Fir, the Douglas is named a Fir but is closer related to Hemlocks (Tsuga). Douglas Fir trees feature a very symmetrical, upright pyramidal shape and look great in every season. It even smells wonderful! The soft, blue-green needles aren't stiff and pokey like other evergreens. Douglas Firs grow tall and straight, with bottlebrush-like needles, pointed new growth buds, and deeply furrowed gray/brown bark.

  • Blue-green needles aren’t stiff and spikey, form bottlebrush around the entire stem
  • Fragrant needles are the same color on top and bottom
  • Male cones are orange-red and about a half-inch in size
  • Female cones when immature are purple or red-green
  • Mature female cones have 3-pronged papery ‘tongues’ that stick out between each layer
  • Deeply furrowed gray-brown bark
  • Forming an open pyramidal silhouette when mature
  • Lower branches droop while upper branches point up

Douglas Fir has looser scaled cones that drop in the fall with either ‘snake tongues’ flicking out from beneath each scale, while others see ‘mice’ hiding beneath each scale with their feet and tails sticking out!

Other Fir Trees Native To The US

     

    Noble Fir (Abies procera)

The Noble Fir has blue-green needles shaped like hockey sticks that stick out from the branch and then angle away from the stems. The scale-like cones and each tightly packed scale have a downward curved bract.

close up green

  • Blue-green needles that have a bend
  • Immature male cones are reddish and are held on the underside of the branches
  • Upright-held female cones are yellow and turn purple
  • Mature cones are long egg-shaped with many tightly packed scales
  • Each scale has a downward-facing bract, giving them an almost shaggy appearance
  • Smooth pale-gray bark that can have a purple tone
  • Clean columnar form with a blunted round crown

Typically found in the Mountains of the Northwestern-most US.

     

    Grand Fir (Abies grandis)

The Grand Fir is considered one of the tallest and fastest-growing Fir species. Also known as the Giant Fir, is native to western North America and grows to 130 - 250 feet in height. The green needles have two white lines on their underside making a two-tone effect. Laying flat on either side of the stem for a flattened stem appearance.

green

  • Green needles with two white lines on the underside
  • Needles lay in flat pairs and are glossy. Entire branch and branchlets are flat
  • Branches have round leaf scars where the old needles were with resinous blisters
  • Yellowish male cones clustered on the underside of the branches
  • Immature female cones are yellow, yellow-green, or green
  • Mature cones stand upright from the branch and shed their scales, rarely dropping whole
  • Bark becomes full of narrow furrows and flat ridges
  • Mature form is very tall and slender pyramidal form with branches that angle down

The layered tightly-packed scales make up the elongated cones sit upright and rarely drop onto the ground.

     

    Santa Lucia Fir (Abies bracteata)

mountain

The Santa Lucia Fir or Bristlecone Fir, is the rarest Fir tree in North America. Exclusively found in the rocky canyons in the Santa Lucia Mountains, and the Big Sur region on the central coastal California.

  • Needle-like leaves are green with two bright white bands on the underside
  • Arranged in a spiral around the branch and tend to point forwards
  • Male cones cluster at the ends of branches and hang down
  • Female cones have very long bracts with winged seeds giving them a hairy appearance
  • The mature form is very skinny and slender with drooping branches
  • Reddish-brown bark has resin blisters and matures with many wrinkles and lines.

Also known as the Bristlecone Fir, this is one of the rarest US Fir trees due to its limited remaining habitat and fire susceptibility.

 

Non-Native Fir Trees Around The World

For every region of the world, there’s a Fir tree named after it and native to that area! From the Greek Fir, Spanish Fir, Bulgarian Fir, Sicilian Fir, and Algerian Fir, the list goes on with each having its very own unique characteristics. The genus Abies includes 48-56 species overall! Some of the more notable varieties include (but are not limited to)...

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  • Silver Fir (Abies alba)

A silvery green needled Fir in the mountains of Europe, the Silver or European Silver Fir is a gorgeous glossy-needled evergreen with a conical canopy.

  • Korean Fir (Abies koreana)

Beautiful and short-needled bottlebrushes with silver undersides, the Korean Fir grows in alkaline soil throughout South Korea's mountains. It does like high rainfall and cool summers.

Nature Hills carries a form of the Korean Fir - the Ice Breaker™ Korean Fir which is a silvery blue-green dwarf that almost looks flocked like a Christmas tree! Growing just 18 - 24 inches tall and spreading 2 - 3 feet wide, this globe-shaped conifer is a slow-growing little specimen plant!

  • Siberian Fir (Abies sibirica)

The Siberian Fir grows in the taiga throughout Siberia and the surrounding regions. Handling incredible chill in the winter, it’s known for creating a powerfully medicinal and aromatic oil.

Fabulous Fir Trees at Nature Hills!

There are about 10 species of Fir Tree in North America and usually found throughout mountainous, rocky areas instead of hanging out in deep pampered forests.

It is always a great idea to check with your local County Extension Office to see which Fir Trees will perform best in your immediate area!

Include the fantastic Fir as a prominent lawn specimen, wildlife sanctuary, or as part of a windbreak, shelterbelt, or snow barrier! Get the Christmas tree look year-round in your landscape!

Check back next time for Part 4: The Juniper!

Happy Planting!

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