Description & Overview
Balsam Fir is a large growing coniferous tree with a symmetrical, pyramidal to conical form with a spire-like crown. Balsam Fir has the widest native range of the North American fir trees, extending across Canada from Alberta to Newfoundland and Labrador, south throughout most of the Midwest, and east to New England. In Wisconsin, Balsam Fir grows readily above the tension zone in the state’s northern half.
The Balsam Fir is a handsome-looking evergreen with a symmetrical growth habit and narrow pyramidal form. Its densely growing dark green needles have a silvery-white underbelly. The needles are flat and arranged in a way that mainly points out from opposite sides of the branch. If you look at its branch closely, you’ll see that the needles are attached to all sides of the branch, but as the needles grow, they twist so that most end up parallel to the ground. Unlike most conifers, the cones of Balsam Fir point upwards from the branch instead of hanging down.
Balsam Fir makes an excellent choice as an evergreen specimen, in addition to a naturalized native garden, windbreak, or green screen. Be mindful that Balsam Fir demands well-drained soil with plenty of moisture.
Deer, moose, rabbits, and numerous species of birds use stands of Balsam Fir as cover during winter thanks to the dense foliage, which cuts down on wind and helps insulate the area. Additionally, the thick foliage often intercepts snow before reaching the ground, making it easier for wildlife to move around underneath. In addition to providing a warmer point of refuge throughout winter, Balsam Fir is a typical breeding habitat for a wide variety of birds, including warblers, woodpeckers, owls, and chickadees.
Balsam Fir is unpalatable to deer, so they are unlikely to browse on it; they tend only to use it as a winter cover. It is, however, a significant food source for moose during winter. The ruffled grouse loves to feed on the foliage and buds, often making up to 10% of their fall and winter diet: squirrels, skunks, and raccoon love to feed on the flower buds in late spring.
Balsam Fir is less-often used as a landscape tree because it demands well-draining soil and plenty of moisture. Although, it does have excellent characteristics fitting for a landscape, such as lovely deep green foliage color, a great conical shape, and aromatic needles.
Avoid planting in hot and dry locations because it doesn’t tolerate drought. Also, it does poorly in heavy clay soil.
Balsam Fir has a beautiful natural growth habit that does not require pruning. If you want to raise the canopy, prune it only during winter. Branches that are touching the ground can be removed to improve air circulation.
Insect pests of Balsam Fir include the balsam woolly adelgids, bark beetle, spruce budworms, aphids, and scale. Spider mites may occur in hot and dry locations, but you shouldn’t be planting in a hot and dry location anyways.
Balsam Fir is susceptible to canker, root rot, needle rust, and twig blight.
The genus name Abies is derived from ‘abed,’ the old-world Latin name for the Silver Fir. Theophrastus, an ancient Greek philosopher and the successor to Aristotle, wrote of “silver firs” from Mt. Ida (today’s Kaz Dag, Turkey) being used in shipbuilding. The fir in Theophrastus’s writings is thought to have been Abies nordmanniana subsp. equi-trojani, known as the Turkish Fir.
The actual name Abies first appeared in Historiae Naturalis written by Gaius Plinius Secundus (A.D. 23-79) or more famously known as Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, naturalist, philosopher, and commander of the Roman Empire’s navy and army. Historiae Naturalis is estimated to have been published in A.D. 77.
Its bark is an identification crutch for many. It has notable characteristics that make identifying this species easier, such as its gray color, smoothness, and abundant resin blisters, emitting spicy-scented resin. Bees will collect the resin from fir trees and other cone-bearing trees to make propolis. Propolis, also known as bee glue, is a waxy, resin-like material used in the construction and repair of bee hives – for sealing openings and cracks and smoothing out the internal walls.
Balsam Fir is one of the most popular commercially grown Christmas trees because of its attractive fragrance and prolonged retention of needles after being cut.
The national champion Balsam Fir is in Fairfield, PA, and is about 104 feet tall!
In its natural environment, you’ll commonly find it in mixed stands rather than pure ones. Familiar forest associates include Black Spruce, White Spruce, Quaking Aspen, Eastern White Pine, Sugar Maple, Red Maple, American Beech, and Basswood.