How to Identify 8 Common North American Fir Trees

Douglas, Fraser, balsam, white fir, and others

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 40 and 55 species of these evergreen conifers worldwide. They are members of the pine family (Pinaceae) and can be distinguished from other pines by their needlelike leaves. 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

Detailed shot of blunt needles of Red Fir tree

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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 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 that are attached with a peglike petiole.

The cones of fir trees are very different when comparing speciesThe 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.

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Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea)

Characteristic spire of balsam fir with mountains in background

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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.

The balsam fir is small to medium in size and prefers moist—even swampy—boreal forest environments. It can be identified by its most distinguishing feature: a narrow and pointed, spirelike crown.

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Pacific Silver Fir (Abies amabilis)

Close-up of a Pacific silver fir's dark green needles

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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 allover resin blisters.

The needles, dark green on top with white lines on the undersides, are similar to those of the grand fir.

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California Red Fir (Abies magnifica)

California red firs growing tall in a partially burned forest

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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.

The resin blisters on California red firs are red-orange, and the needles are four-sided, not flat. Needles also curve like the ends of a hockey stick where they attach to their branches.

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Noble Fir (Abies procera)

Row of noble firs with large cones against blue sky

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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"). 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 and arranged in a spiral on the shoots.

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Grand Fir (Abies grandis)

Close-up of grand fir's large trunk with hiker in background

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Like noble firs, grand firs are also notably huge, growing up to 200 feet. The two, however, differ in their needles. The former's are flat whereas the latter's are bent like hockey sticks. 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.

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White Fir (Abies concolor)

Close-up of the white fir's signature light-colored needles

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The white fir is perhaps the easiest true fir to identify because of its flat, bluish-to-silvery-green needles that curve outwards and upwards from the branch. This tree 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.

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Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri)

Rows of Fraser firs on rolling hills under blue sky

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

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. Its needles are sometimes very dark green and occur in two rows.

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Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

Young Douglas fir trees growing on hillside

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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.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What's the difference between a fir and a spruce tree?

    Firs and spruces have many similarities and are often confused with each other, but firs have needles that are rounded at the tip and flattened. Spruce needles are sharp at the tip and square so that they roll easily between your fingers.

  • What do fir tree needles look like?

    Fir trees can be identified by their soft and flattened needles, usually green to dark green in color and rounded at the tip.

  • What makes a tree a true fir?

    True firs, unlike other conifers, feature cylindrical cones that grow erect, pointing toward the sky, and disintegrate before falling to the ground. If you spot what you think is a fir with intact cones on the ground, it's probably a Douglas fir, not a true fir.

View Article Sources
  1. "Noble Fir (Abies procera)." Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

  2. "Conifers - Douglas Fir." United States Forest Service.