Firs, like spruces, are noticeable from a distance because of a conical form whose base is wider than its crown. Balsam and subalpine firs that grow in the open, they have something of a triangular look with a very pointed crown. When growing in dense stands, lower branches may be absent or without needles, having died off from reduced sun exposure and so having changed the shape of the tree.
Similar Species: View more Fir species below
Habitat: Firs can live in both shady and sunny conditions; in the forest environment they may be shaded as saplings, but as the bigger trees fall down they become exposed to sunlight. Firs typically prefer cool and moist environments.
There is some vegetative reproduction as fir branches sometimes root when close to the ground, but they predominately use seeds as a means to propagate.Primary Ecosystem Roles:
Many animals make use of these trees for shelter from cold winter winds and cover from predators. They also eat the seeds, bark, needles and twigs, as well as the insects that dwell there.Notes: Fir trees are one of the popular choices for Christmas trees; the fragrant needles remain on the tree a few weeks after it has been cut down.
|Wild about Gardening||
Canadian Wildlife Federation
Article: Sarah Coulber
Images: Sarah Coulber and The Big Box of Art (Hemera)
December 21, 2005
Fir Trees of Canada
I enjoy so many plants — some for their smells, which hold me transfixed in delight or bring to mind happy memories, some for their colourful blooms or foliage, and some for their elegant or whimsical forms. When it comes to fir trees, I love to feel their soft needles, contemplate their magnificent contrast to surrounding colours, and put my nose up against the trunk to take a deep whiff of the richly fragrant resin.
Living in and around Ottawa, I have become familiar with the local balsam fir, whose range extends as far west as Alberta and east to Newfoundland. But there are three other species of fir native to Canada — alpine, amabilis and grand — all of which are found in the west.
True fir trees are not to be confused with the Douglas firs of the genus Pseudotsuga, whose cones hang down from the branch and remain intact after maturity. True firs have cones that stand upright on the branches and their scales fall away once the seeds within have ripened.
What’s in a name?
The Latin name of each native species points to a characteristic. They all share the genus name Abies, meaning long-lived; some trees can live up to 300 years. A. balsamea refers to the balsam fir’s fragrant resin (although all have this resin). A. lasiocarpa comes from the Greek lasios, meaning shaggy/woolly, and karpos, meaning fruit; the word refers to the alpine fir’s cone scales, which are covered in fine hairs. A. amabilis means lovely and pleasing, probably because of the amabilis fir’s thick and shiny foliage, and A. grandis reflects the grand fir’s nature to grow tall — up to 75 meters high.
Firs, like spruces, are noticeable from a distance because of a conical form whose base is wider than its crown. In the case of the balsam and subalpine firs that grow in the open, they have something of a triangular look with a very pointed crown. The amabilis and grand firs have a more even width with a softer point at the crown, with the amabilis even somewhat domed. When growing in dense stands, lower branches may be absent or without needles, having died off from reduced sun exposure and so having changed the shape of the tree.
Fir needles are flat, flexible and softer at the tips, unlike spruce needles, which are stiff, four-sided, usually pointed and therefore a little prickly to the touch. Fir needles are arranged all the way around upper branches, but on lower branches they appear as if on opposite sides of the branch (this is typical with the balsam and grand firs, but not as common in the other two species). Turn the needle over and you will notice white lines which are actually a series of little white dots. You may also notice some white near the tips of the needle’s upper surface.
Young bark is smooth and grayish with bubbly blisters filled with resin; it becomes scalier or slightly furrowed as it matures.
Both male pollen cones and female seed cones are on the same tree near the top although female cones are higher up in the crown. Mature cones are anywhere from four to 14 centimetres long and stand upright on the branch. When the seeds and scales have fallen away, usually in the year that they ripen, their axe (the stem-like part they were attached to) remains — fir trees are the only evergreens in which this happens.
All firs are considered attractive when grown in ideal conditions — sunny, open areas with moist, fertile soil.
Fir trees are one of the popular choices for Christmas trees; the fragrant needles remain on the tree a few weeks after it has been cut down.
The wood is used in the manufacture of paper, boxes, panelling, doors and chairs, but less so for lumber products. The inner bark of fir trees was even collected during the war and ground up to make existing flour supplies last longer.
Aboriginal Peoples have used grand and amabilis firs to make canoes, and grand fir to make a baby powder by extracting a pink dye from dried and crushed bark.
Canada balsam, the resin from the bark of all firs, is used in making microscope slides because its refractive index is comparable to that of glass. It is also used in perfumes, soaps, candles and air fresheners.
The resin (also called gum or pitch) has also been valued by Aboriginal Peoples for its usefulness in plugging holes in canoes and cleaning teeth when chewed (it has antiseptic properties). It is even considered a food source in times of emergency.
Medicinally, fir trees have helped treat many ailments. The resin from the bark, the bark itself and the oils from the needles have been used in a variety of ways; as tea for colds and fevers, poultices for chest colds and salves for cuts and burns, to name just a few applications.
Fir needles and twigs have also been used as a moth repellent, hair tonic and for scenting aboriginal sweat baths when burned as incense.
Many animals make use of these trees for shelter from cold winter winds and cover from predators. They also eat the seeds, bark, needles and twigs, as well as the insects that dwell there.
(Caution: We are not recommending the use of these plants for medicinal or food purposes. Many plants are poisonous or harmful if eaten or used externally. The information on food and medicinal value is only added for interest. This information has been gathered from books and its accuracy has not been tested.)
There is some vegetative reproduction as fir branches sometimes root when close to the ground, but they predominately use seeds as a means to propagate.
Follow nature and plant seeds in the autumn, when the winds would naturally blow the seeds to the ground. If you can’t, put them in the freezer in damp soil for a few weeks prior to planting. The following summer you may find they only grow a fraction but don’t be discouraged as this is normal for the first year. Place the young tree in its permanent spot when it’s less than 90 centimetres because larger trees can have a hard time adjusting to a new home.
Firs can live in both shady and sunny conditions; in the forest environment they may be shaded as saplings, but as the bigger trees fall down they become exposed to sunlight. Firs typically prefer cool and moist environments.
Balsam firs can be susceptible to eastern spruce budworm, which destroys entire stands every few decades, but outbreaks are subsequently followed by a resurgence of more trees.
Firs are not very drought tolerant so ensure the base is well mulched, but not the trunk.
Balsam fir (Canada balsam)
- Native to: north/central Alberta and Saskatchewan, most of Manitoba east to Newfoundland (except the southern tip of Ontario and the northern tips of these provinces) and most of the Maritimes.
- Habitat: Grows in a variety of soils. Shade tolerant when young; prefers sun when mature. Grows in pure stands or with white, red and black spruce, eastern hemlock and trembling aspen.
- Appearance: Commonly 10 to 15 metres in height, but can grow to 25. In open areas, wide-growing lower branches reach the ground; other branches narrow to a pointy crown.
Alpine fir (subalpine fir / Rocky Mountain fir / western balsam fir / caribou fir)
- Native to: the Yukon, British Columbia (coastal, northern and Rocky Mountain regions) and western Alberta.
- Habitat: Grows in a variety of soils at high altitudes starting at 600 metres to the timberline. Shade tolerant but prefers sun when mature. Found in pure stands or with Engelmann spruce, white spruce, lodgepole pine, mountain hemlock, subalpine larch, white birch and trembling aspen, or at high altitudes with western white pine and whitebark pine.
- Appearance: Can reach 15 to 45 metres. In open areas it has a similar shape to balsam but much narrower. If growing on an exposed slope, it may appear more as a low shrub.
Amabilis fir (Pacific silver fir / red fir / white fir)
- Native to: coastal British Columbia.
- Habitat: Found in subalpine forests; tolerates a variety of soils. Shade tolerant when young, but prefers sun when mature. Found in pure stands or with western red cedar, western hemlock, western white pine, Douglas fir and Sitka spruce. Grows at elevations of 350 to 2000 metres.
- Appearance: Reaches 20 to 40 metres. There is less of a difference in the span of lower and upper branches, even in open areas, so the tapering from top to bottom of the tree is not as defined as in balsam and alpine firs.
Grand fir (lowland fir)
- Native to: coastal and interior forests of southern British Columbia.
- Habitat: Found along streams and lower slopes. Prefers deep, moist, well-drained soil. Somewhat shade tolerant. Typically found with western red cedar, black cottonwood, western hemlock, Douglas fir, red alder and Sitka spruce. Sea level to 30 metres.
- Appearance: Reaches 30 to 70 metres. Young trees have a narrow, spire-like top which becomes rounded with age. In open areas the lower branches tend to droop causing the middle of the tree to appear wider.
Trees in Canada by John Laird Farrar, 1995
Identification Guide to the Trees of Canada by Jean Lauriault, 1989