Identify Types of Fir Trees in America

Close-up of green needles on a Douglas fir branch.

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True firs are in the genus Abies and there are between 45-55 species of these evergreen conifers worldwide. The trees are found through much of North and Central America, Europe, Asia, and North Africa, occurring in higher elevations and mountains over most of the range.

The Douglas or Doug fir is also a fir tree but in the genus Pseudotsuga and is only native to western North American forests.

All firs are in the pine family called Pinaceae. Firs can be distinguished from other members of the pine family by their needle-like leaves.

Identification of the North American Firs

Detailed shot of blunt needles of Red Fir tree in the spring.

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Fir needles are typically short and mostly soft with blunt tips. The cones are cylindrical and upright and the shape of a fir tree is very narrow with rigid, upright, or horizontal branching as opposed to "drooping" branches on some spruce trees.

Unlike a spruce tree, fir needles are attached to twigs mostly in an arrangement that is in two rows. The needles grow outward and curving up from the twig and form a flattish spray. There is also a distinct lack of needles on the bottom side of its twig, 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 that are attached with a peg-like petiole.

The cones of fir trees are very different when comparing Abies to Pseudotsuga. The true fir cones are rarely seen up close as they grow toward the top of the tree. They are an elongated oval, disintegrate on the limb (almost never dropping to the ground intact), perch upright, and often ooze resin. Douglas fir cones stay intact and are generally abundant in and under the tree. This unique cone has a three-pointed bract (snake tongue) between each scale.

The Common North American Firs

Noble fir tree cones standing upright.

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  • Balsam fir
  • Pacific silver fir
  • California red fir
  • Noble fir
  • Grand fir
  • White fir
  • Fraser fir
  • Douglas fir

More on the True Firs

A Christmas tree farm with fir trees.

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The balsam fir is North America's northern-most fir, with an extensive range in Canada, and primarily grows in the northeastern United States. Western firs are the Pacific silver fir, California red fir, Noble fir, grand fir, and white fir. Fraser fir is rare in its natural Appalachian range but extensively planted and grown for Christmas trees.

Firs have absolutely no insect or decay resistance when exposed to the outside environment. Therefore, the wood is generally recommended for indoor housing use for sheltered support framing and in furniture for cheaper structural construction. This wood left outside cannot be expected to last more than 12 to 18 months, depending on the type of climate it is exposed to. It is commonly referred to by several different names in the timber trade including North American timber, SPF (spruce, pine, fir), and whitewood.

Noble fir, Fraser fir, and Balsam fir are very popular Christmas trees, generally considered to be the best trees for this purpose, with aromatic foliage that does not shed many needles on drying out. Many are also very decorative garden trees.

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