17 Different Types of Fir Trees & Their Identifying Features

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Written By Lyrae Willis

Environmental Scientist & Plant Ecologist

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Fir trees are perhaps best known as Christmas trees, but they are so much more than that.

There are about 50 different types of fir trees worldwide. True firs belong to the genus Abies in the Pinaceae family. They are part of the gymnosperms or “naked seed” plants that evolved millions of years before flowering plants.

Fir trees are critical components of forests throughout the mountains of North and Central America, Asia, Europe, and North Africa. They are not found in the Southern Hemisphere.

They are beautiful, symmetrical, and usually very tall evergreen trees that keep their leaves all throughout the year. They provide wildlife and biodiversity values and are useful and aesthetically pleasing trees for people.

Fir trees make a beautiful landscape tree which, if the right tree is chosen for the right location, will require no maintenance once established, especially if it is native to your area.

Guide to Fir Tree Varieties – 17 Types and Their Distinctive Features

Noble, Balsam, and Fraser Firs are all very popular as Christmas trees and make great landscape trees too.

Fir trees, once established, require little to no maintenance. And the added bonus is that there are no known invasive fir trees, so you don’t have to worry about them escaping cultivation.

Having said that, choosing native species, whenever possible, is still best for biodiversity, wildlife values, etc.

1. Grand Fir (Abies grandis)

1 Grand Fir - Wiki Commons Photos
Images By Walter Siegmund – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 & Crusier – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Grand Fir trees are some of the tallest Abies worldwide, with the largest specimens reaching 335 ft tall with a diameter at chest height of 6’ 7”.

Its needle-like leaves are up to 2 ⅜” long with notches in the tips. They are glossy dark green above, with two white bands of stomata on the lower surface.

Leaves are attached spirally to the twigs but are twisted so that they lie flat in two rows, typical among firs.

The bark is gray and smooth when young, with resin blisters and white spots. When it ages, it becomes browner and has vertical grooves that are often reddish.

It grows from sea level to 5600 ft and is a common component of climax forests, where it grows slowly in full shade.

It can be prone to fungus, defoliating insects, and mild forest fires because its thin bark does not thicken much with age.

Other Common Names: Giant Fir, Great Silver Fir, Western White Fir, Lowland White Fir, Yellow Fir, Vancouver Fir, Oregon Fir

Identifying Features: Grand Fir can often easily be recognized by its large size and ‘sawtooth’ leaves that alternate in a series of longer and shorter needles. Its leaves are notched at the tips and lie in flat horizontal rows. It can be differentiated from White Fir by its thinner bark and few or no white stomata on the upper leaf surface compared to lots on the White Fir.

Native Area: Pacific Northwest from southern British Columbia south to northern California, plus an inland subspecies found mostly in the Rocky Mountains from British Columbia south to Washington and Idaho.

USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 6

Average Size at Maturity: 130 – 230 (to 335) ft tall, 20 -35 ft spread

2. Noble Fir (Abies procera)

2 Noble Fir - Wiki Commons Photos
Images By S. Rae CC BY 2.0 and Crusier CC BY-SA 4.0

Noble Fir is another tall fir native to the Pacific Northwest, with larger specimens reaching 295 ft tall.

The relatively short leaves are either blunt-tipped or have a slight notch. On upper branches, they become more four-sided than flattened.

Leaves are arranged spirally but twisted slightly S-shaped to be directed upwards from the twig.

The upper surface of the leaves is green, grooved lengthwise, and may or may not have stomatal bands. The light bluish-green lower surface has 2-4 glaucous whitish stomatal bands.

Young bark is smooth, grayish, and has resin blisters. When mature, it becomes thick and reddish brown with large deep, wide vertical grooves about the same width as the ridges.

Seed cones are 4 ¼ – 8 ¾” long, oblong to cylindrical in green, red, or purple, with conspicuous green bracts overtop.

It is a popular landscape plant with several cultivars available in various sizes and leaf colors.

Other Common Names: Blue Noble Fir, Red Fir, Christmas Tree

Identifying Features: Noble Fir can be identified by its blue-green leaves that are relatively short at ½ to 1 ½” and have a prominent raised midrib. The leaf bases are appressed to the twigs giving them a hockey stick-like appearance and are twisted to point upwards. It is sometimes confused with Pacific Silver Fir, but its cones are much larger with more conspicuous green bracts, and its bark develops grooves as it ages rather than plates. It can be differentiated from Red Fir by its green leaves that are not glaucous and its bark grooves that are not as widely separated as Red Fir.

Native Area: Cascade and Pacific Coast Mountain Ranges from Washington south to the northwest tip of California

USDA Growing Zones: 5 – 6

Average Size at Maturity: 50 – 100 (to 290) ft tall, about 20-40 ft spread

3. Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea)

3 Balsam Fir - Wiki Commons Photos
Images By Joseph O’Brien, USDA Forest Service – CC BY 3.0, Rob Routledge, Sault College,, CC BY 3.0, R. A. Nonenmacher – Own work – CC BY-SA 4.0

Balsam Fir is a lovely, fragrant, small or medium size tree with a narrow spire-like crown.

It has thin, smooth gray bark with resin blisters that breaks into irregular brownish scales when mature.

The dark green upper surface of the leaves is sometimes glaucous with stomatal bands. If present, stomata are concentrated near the blunt or slightly notched leaf tip. The lower surface has two stomatal bands.

Leaves are arranged spirally but twisted to lie flat in horizontal rows. Sometimes they spread out radially, especially on cone-bearing branches.

They prefer full sun to partial shade in moist to wet, cool, often boreal, forest environments.

It has a strong but pleasant pine-like aroma that is used in the essential oil industry.

Numerous wildlife species eat the leaves, and others use the trees for shelter. Leaves are also rich in Vitamin C and have a long history of medicinal use by First Nations peoples.

Other Common Names: Balm of Gilead Tree, Canadian Balsam, Eastern Fir, Bracted Balsam Fir

Identifying Features: The narrow, spire-like crown of Balsam Fir is an easy way to identify it from a distance. The brownish rather than grayish mature scaly bark and its smaller size help distinguish it from Pacific Silver Fir. It can be distinguished from White Fir by its smaller size and the stomata on the upper surface, when present, being concentrated more near the tip than the base.

Native Area: Central and eastern Canada from Alberta east to Newfoundland and the northeastern USA from Minnesota east to Maine and south through the Appalachians to West Virginia.

USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 7

Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 65 (to 90 ft) tall; 15 – 25 ft spread

Available at: Nature Hills

4. Subalpine Fir (Abies lasiocarpa)

4 Subalpine Fir - Lyrae WIllis Photos
Images by Lyrae Willis (Own Work) for Tree Vitalize

Subalpine Fir is a medium-sized tree with a narrow conical crown and thin grayish bark that furrows as it ages but remains gray.

Its flattened leaves are up to 1” long with blunt, rounded, or notched tips. They are spirally arranged but twisted at their base and tend to grow mostly upwards and to the sides, with some growing downwards.

The very glaucous light blue-green to grayish-green upper surface of the leaves is grooved and has bands of stomata that typically continue the length of the leaf. Its lower surface also has stomatal bands on both sides of the midrib.

It typically grows at high elevations in full sun to partial shade and does well in areas with cold winters and cool short summers.

It makes a lovely landscape tree at low elevations but should be grown in partial shade to protect it from potentially harsh summer sunlight.

Other Common Names: Alpine Fir, Rocky Mountain Fir, Cork Bark Fir (a subspecies), White Balsam, Western Balsam Fir, Mountain Balsam Fir

Identifying Features: Subalpine Fir can be fairly quickly identified by its very glaucous light green leaves that grow out and upwards from the twig in multiple directions, giving them a bushier rather than flattened appearance. Its leaves are much lighter green than any of the other true fir species that also have leaves that grow out in all directions. Its grayish bark remains gray as it matures and develops vertical grooves.

Native Area: Mountains of Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia, and western Alberta, south through the USA to northern California, southern Arizona, and southern New Mexico

USDA Growing Zones: 5(4) – 8

Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 80 (to 160) ft tall, 10 – 15 ft spread

5. Pacific Silver Fir (Abies amabilis)

5 Pacific Silver Fir - Lyrae WIllis Photos
Images by Lyrae Willis (Own Work) for Tree Vitalize

The lovely Pacific Silver Fir has always been my favorite fir. It has beautiful foliage and irresistibly aromatic resin blisters that remain longer into maturity than other firs. As it matures, the bark breaks into scaly plates instead of developing the typical grooves.

The flattened leaves are dark lustrous green above with prominent grooves, no stomata, and a deeply notched tip. The lower surface has two very thick white bands of stomata, making it look silver-white.

Leaves are arranged in two rows on each side of the twig, with two rows of longer leaves spread horizontally and two central rows of shorter leaves that point in a forward direction, concealing the upper surface of the twig.

It grows in temperate rainforests from 0 – 7500 ft and prefers high rainfall and cool, humid summers. It is very shade-tolerant and grows slowly but well in the shade of other trees.

Other Common Names: White FIr, Red Fir, Silver Fir, Lovely Fir, Amabilis Fir, Cascades Fir

Identifying Features: The leaves of the Pacific Silver Fir, with its somewhat unique two-ranked leaves with longer horizontal leaves and central leaves that point forward, help distinguish it from other fir trees. Sacred fir has a similar leaf arrangement, but it has pointy rather than deeply notched leaf tips. The distinctive bark that does not turn as brown and furrowed and retains its resin blisters longer will also allow you to distinguish it from other firs.

Native Area: Pacific Coast Range and Cascade Range Mountains of the Pacific Northwest from southeast Alaska south through to the northwestern tip of California.

USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 8

Average Size at Maturity: 98 – 148 (to 235) ft tall, 20 – 50 ft spread

6. Sacred Fir (Abies religiosa)

6 Sacred Fir Abies religiosa El Rosario 1
Image by hspauldi – El Rosario Monarch Sanctuary, CC BY-SA 2.0

The Sacred Fir is famous for being the critical overwintering home of the Monarch Butterflies when they make their way down to Mexico after their long migration from the north.

It is a medium-sized fir with shiny dark green leaves with a pointy tip. The lower surface has two blue-white bands of stomata but none on the upper surface.

Leaves are spirally arranged but twisted with longer leaves lying horizontally and shorter central leaves pointing upwards, similar to Pacific Silver Fir.

Its gray-white bark matures to become dark gray-brown and very deeply grooved.

It grows in full sun to partial shade in high-elevation cloud forests at 6900 – 13,500 ft in tropical Mexico and Guatemala, where they have cool, humid summers and dry winters.

Their natural habitat is threatened by climate change, air pollution, etc. Scientists are working with nursery trees in population-assisted migration to help preserve them.

Other Common Names: Oyamel Fir, Pinabete

Identifying Features: The Sacred Fir can be differentiated by its leaves that have a pointy (acute) tip rather than blunt or notched like most other fir trees. There are only stomata on the lower leaf surface and not the upper. While the leaf arrangement appears similar to Pacific Silver Fir, their middle leaves tend to point upwards more than forwards. The Red Fir sometimes has acute leaf tips, but its leaves are 3-4 sided rather than flat.

Native Area: Mountains of central and southern Mexico and western Guatemala

USDA Growing Zones: 7 – 10

Average Size at Maturity: 80 – 130 (to 164) ft tall, about 30 ft spread

7. Red Fir (Abies magnifica)

7 Red Fir - Wiki Commons Photos
Images by Wsiegmund – CC BY 2.5 and Orjen – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Red Fir is a magnificent-looking tree that gets its name from its red bark. It is thin and gray when young, but as it matures becomes deeply furrowed with widely separated grooves and reddish plates.

It typically grows over 100 ft tall, with the largest reaching 251 ft tall and a diameter of 9’ 10” at chest height.

Its dark blue-green leaves are unique, instead of flattened, they are four or sometimes three-sided, similar to spruce. The leaf tip is pointy or rounded. They have two prominent bands of stomata on their lower surface and one on their glaucous blue-green upper surface that may divide into two near the leaf base.

Leaves are twisted in a spiral arrangement on the stems so that they are upcurved rather than horizontal but never grow downwards from the twig.

In its narrow native range, it grows in mountainous regions from 4600 – 8900 ft.

Other Common Names: California Red Fir, Silvertip Fir, Shasta Red Fir

Identifying Features: Red Fir has 4(3)-sided leaves that are never flat, and their bases curve S-shaped to grow upwards in curvy rows rather than horizontally. The resin blisters on their bark are red-orange instead of grayish or whitish. It can be differentiated from the closely related Noble Fir by not having grooves in the upper surface of its leaf and by its ascending and descending rather than horizontal branches.

Native Area: The mountains of southwestern Oregon and California.

USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 8

Average Size at Maturity: 130 – 200 (to 251) ft tall, 35 ft spread

8. White Fir (Abies concolor)

8 White Fir - Lyrae WIllis Photos
Images by Lyrae Willis (Own Work) for Tree Vitalize

The White Fir is a beautifully symmetrical long-lived shade-tolerant climax tree found in mature mountainous forests.

Its leaves are very long at 1 – 3 ⅛” and rounded at the tips or occasionally pointy or slightly notched.

The upper leaf surface is gray-green, has rows of stomata concentrated more at the leaf base, and is sometimes glaucous. The lower surface has stomatal bands and is also glaucus or not.

When young, the bark is thin, smooth, and gray. When mature, it remains gray but thickens and develops yellowish to reddish long vertical grooves.

The cylindrical seed cones are 2 ¾ to 4 3/4 “ long and olive green to pinkish in color.

It is very popular as an ornamental and Christmas tree. It tolerates dry and cold sites, shade, and a wide range of soil types, including strongly acidic.

White Fir has many important wildlife values, including numerous old-growth dependent species.

Other Common Names: Concolor Fir, Colorado Fir, White Balsam, Rocky Mountian White Fir

Identifying Features: White Fir has longer leaves than almost all other firs and abundant stomata on the upper leaf surface. Its leaves curve outward and upward from the branch, particularly on cone-bearing branches. The tip of the leaf is usually rounded, but when notched, it can still be differentiated from other firs by the abundant stomata on the upper leaf surface.

Native Area: Western North America in the mountains of Oregon south to Baja California, and southern Idaho and Colorado south to northern Sonora, Mexico

USDA Growing Zones: 3 – 7

Average Size at Maturity: 50 – 150 (to 246) ft tall, up to 60 ft spread

Available at: Nature Hills & Fast-Growing-Trees

9. Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri)

9 Fraser Fir - Nature Hills Photos
Images via Nature Hills

Fraser Fir is sometimes treated as a subspecies of Balsam Fir, though plant taxonomy authorities report otherwise.

It is a beautiful, symmetrical tree with smooth, thin gray bark with blisters that becomes reddish-scaled and grooved as it matures.

The lustrous dark green leaves are sometimes glaucous above and may have stomatal lines concentrated towards the slightly notched to rounded tip. The lower surface has two stomatal bands.

Leaves are spirally arranged and twisted to lie horizontally or point in all directions but mostly upwards and sideways.

Being a small tree, the 1 ½ to 2 ½” dark purple seed cones with yellow-green scales are frequently visible.

It grows in full sun to partial shade in cool, foggy mountains in moist, well-drained, acidic soils. It will not tolerate heat.

In the Appalachians, it is Imperiled due to extensive historical habitat alteration.

It is grown extensively for the Christmas tree and landscape industries.

Other Common Names: Southern Balsam Fir, She-Balsam, Fraser’s Balsam Fir, Mountain Balsam

Identifying Features: Fraser Fir is one of the smallest fir trees, which helps make its seed cones more visible and helps distinguish it from other firs, as does the sometimes very dark green leaves. It is similar to Balsam Fir but not as spire-topped, and its leaves are usually a bit more conspicuously notched. Subalpine Fir is also similar but has much lighter green leaves.

Native Area: A narrow endemic species found naturally only in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia in the USA.

USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 7

Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 50 (to 80) ft tall, 10 – 25 ft spread

Available at: Nature Hills

10. Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

10-1 Douglas Fir - Lyrae WIllis Photos
Images by Lyrae Willis (Own Work) for Tree Vitalize

Douglas Fir belongs to the Pseudotsuga genus, which means ‘false hemlock,’ yet it is neither a fir nor hemlock.

Its fir-like leaves are attached by leaf stalks instead of ‘suction cups’ and are arranged in a whorl around the twigs like spruce but softer.

10-2 Douglas Fir vs Fir Cones - Lyrae WIllis Photos (left) and Wiki Commons Photo (right)
Left Image by Lyrae Willis (Own Work) for Tree Vitalize, Right Image by MPF CC BY-SA 3.0

Their seed cones hang downwards rather than upright, and they have three-pointed bracts that look like snake tongues.

Young bark is smooth and blistered but becomes exceptionally thick and reddish brown with exceptionally deep vertical grooves.

Old-growth trees often have burn scars, remnants of ancient fires their bark protected them from, allowing them to live 400 – 1000 (to 1400) years.

They are intolerant of full shade and regenerate well after fires, so their population is maintained by low to medium-intensity fires.

Its wood is very popular as lumber, and it has been widely planted outside its native range. It has been assessed as an invasive species in Europe and Patagonia.

Other Common Names: Douglas Spruce, Oregon Pine, Columbian Pine

Identifying Features: The yellowish-green to bluish-green leaves of Douglas Fir are attached singly to the branches on small petioles (leaf stalks) in a whorl all around the twig, unlike true firs. Their narrowly conical green scaly seed cones hang downwards instead of upwards and often fall off the tree intact before disintegrating, also unlike true firs. Compared to spruce, their leaves are much softer, their cones much scalier, and their whorled leaves do not spread as perfectly radially.

Native Area: Western North America from southern coastal British Columbia to northern California (coastal variety) and the inland mountains of southern British Columbia and southwestern Alberta south through the western USA to the mountains of northern Mexico

USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 6 for Rocky Mountain Douglas Fir, 5 – 6 for Coastal Douglas Fir

Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 75 ft tall (inland) or 70 – 330 ft tall (coastal); 20 – 40 ft spread

Available at: Nature Hills & Fast-Growing-Trees

11. Nordmann Fir (Abies nordmanniana)

11 Nordmann Fir - Wiki Commons Photos
Images by Lazaregagnidze – Own work and Petr Filippov – Own work, both CC BY-SA 3.0

Nordmann Fir is a big beautiful tree that grows 180 – 200 ft in its native habitat. In contrast, in cultivation, trees typically grow to 50 ft.

It has a pyramidal habit with branches that grow to near ground level.

Its flattened leaves are densely packed and twisted to point forwards and upwards. Leaf tips may be blunt, slightly notched, or pointy.

The leaves upper surface is glossy green to almost black-green and has no stomata. The lower surface has prominent bluish-white stomatal bands.

It grows in moist mountains at 2900 – 7250 ft and is tolerant of various conditions, including full shade to full sun, mildly acidic to mildly alkaline soil, and sandy to heavy clay soil. It will not tolerate dry soil or drought.

It is a popular Christmas tree for its attractive leaves that do not drop readily when dry. It is also a popular non-invasive ornamental tree.

Other Common Names: Caucasian Fir, Christmas Tree Fir

Identifying Features: The densely packed leaves that are often much darker than most firs will help identify the Nordmann Fir. The leaves point forwards and upwards and have very prominent stomatal bands on the lower surface. Its large size, large cones (3 ⅞” to 7 ⅞” long), and branches near the ground will also help ascertain a positive identification.

Native Area: Mountains of Turkey, Georgia, and the Russian Caucasus, south and east of the Black Sea

USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 6

Average Size at Maturity: 50 – 200 ft tall, 15 – 25 ft spread

12. Siberian Fir (Abies sibirica)

12 Siberian Fir - Wiki Commons Photos
Images by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 and msdte, CC BY 3.0

The Siberian Fir has leaves that are noticeably lighter green than most other firs. Like some firs, they are twisted and directed upwards from the shoot rather than in two horizontal rows.

Its leaves have two gray-white stomatal bands on the lower surface but none on the upper. They are very aromatic and soft to the touch.

The bark is gray-brown to gray-green and is smooth with resin blisters, developing few, if any, deep grooves as it ages.

They are one of the hardiest trees on the planet, having adapted to cold boreal climates in their native range where it grows in mountains and valleys at 6200 – 7900 ft. They are resistant to temperatures down to – 58 F. They are unsuitable for climates with consistently warm (or hot) summers.

They grow in full sun to part shade and will tolerate full shade though their growth rate would be slowed.

Other Common Names: Pichta Sibirskaya, Xianbei Lengshan

Identifying Features: The leaves of the Siberian Fir are usually a lighter green than most other firs, excluding perhaps Douglas Fir, which has radially arranged leaves that go around the entire twig and downward hanging seed cones. Its twigs are yellow-gray rather than the brownish or reddish often seen in firs. The bark is sometimes gray-green and seldom develops any deep grooves as it ages.

Native Area: Boreal forests of northern Russia, Siberia, Turkestan, and northern China

USDA Growing Zones: 2 – 3

Average Size at Maturity: 50 – 115 ft tall, 20 – 40 ft spread

13. Spanish Fir (Abies pinsapo)

13 Spanish Fir Abies pinsapo
Image by Liné1, CC BY-SA 3.0

Spanish Fir is a gorgeous medium-sized tree with a symmetrical conical crown with branches that usually grow to near ground level.

The stiff and sharp-pointed leaves are arranged radially around the twigs, looking more like spruce. They are glaucous pale blue-green with broad whitish bands of stomata on both sides.

It grows in dry mountains at 3000 – 7000 ft in a very narrow range in southern Spain and Morocco. It prefers full sun but will grow in partial shade. It will grow in neutral to slightly alkaline soils, unlike many conifers that tend to grow in more acidic soil.

It is threatened by fires, development, tourism, etc, and is endangered in its native habitat, despite ongoing conservation efforts.

It makes a popular landscape tree for its beautiful leaves, symmetry, its tolerance of mildly alkaline soils, and the fact that it does not become invasive. However, it does not tolerate urban pollution.

Other Common Names: Pinesapo, Spanish Silver Spruce

Identifying Features: Spanish Fir has thick, stiff, sharply pointed leaves that are a unique pale glaucous blue-green and arranged radially around the twig, like spruce, setting it apart from all other firs. To distinguish it from spruce, simply look for the suction cup attachment of its leaves rather than the stalk-like pulvinus seen in spruce, along with upright rather than pendulous seed cones.

Native Area: Narrow endemic in the dry mountains of southern Spain and northern Morocco.

USDA Growing Zones: 6 – 7

Average Size at Maturity: 50 – 75 ft tall, 15 – 30’ spread

14. Korean Fir (Abies koreana)

14 Korean Fir Abies koreana (szyszki)
Image by By Lestat (Jan Mehlich) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Korean Fir is a small to medium-sized tree with smooth gray-brown bark with resin blisters that does not develop grooves when mature.

The leaves are glossy dark-green above and with two broad stomatal bands below. The leaf tip is slightly notched.

Leaves are arranged spirally but twisted on the twigs to lay both flat on either side of the branch or point upwards.

Being a very small tree, their lovely seed cones are very visible. They are 1 ½ – 2 ¾” long and are dark purple-blue with long green or yellow scale bracts.

It is native to South Korean mountains from 3300 to 6200 ft in temperate rainforests with cool, humid summers and abundant precipitation. It typically grows in full sun in rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soils.

It is a popular landscape tree for its size and abundant production of attractive seed cones, even on very young trees.

Other Common Names: Abeto Coreano, Kusang Namu, Sapin Coréen

Identifying Features: Korean Fir’s abundant seed cones, even on trees under 4 ft tall, will easily identify this tree. When cones are not present, its small size and bark that does not furrow as it ages will help distinguish it from other firs. Its leaves are also twisted, so they lie flat and point upwards, away from the twig, with few to no leaves pointing downwards

Native Area: Mountains of South Korea and Jeju Island

USDA Growing Zones: 5 – 7

Average Size at Maturity: 15 – 50 (to 60) ft tall, 6 – 25 ft spread

15. Silver Fir (Abies alba)

15 Silver Fir Abies alba shoot
Image by Gmihail at Serbian Wikipedia – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 rs

Silver Fir is a large, attractive, and fast-growing fir tree.

Leaves are dark glossy green above and have two prominent greenish-white stomatal bands below. The leaf tip is usually slightly notched.

The leaves are twisted to lay almost flat or may point upwards, particularly on cone-bearing branches. They typically alternate in short and long leaves, giving them a sawtooth-like appearance.

Seed cones are 3.5 – 6.7” long and are very narrowly cylindrical.

In its native habitat, it grows in mountainous regions at 980 – 5580 ft with abundant annual rainfall. They prefer cold and humid climates and are typically found on northern slopes throughout their range.

It was the first tree used for Christmas trees and is still often used for its symmetrical shape, dense leaves, and pleasant scent. It is being displaced by the Nordmann Fir with its attractive foliage or the cheaply grown but invasive Norway Spruce.

Other Common Names: European Silver Fir, Christmas Tree Fir, Common Silver Fir

Identifying Features: The Silver Fir has leaves that may be twisted to lie flat and also point upright on cone-bearing branches. This is similar to East Himalayan Fir, but its leaves are much more noticeably saw-toothed than the Himalayan Firs. Its smaller size and its narrower seed cones will distinguish it from Grand Fir, which also has sawtooth-like teeth.

Native Area: Mountains of central and southern Europe east to Ukraine

USDA Growing Zones: 5 – 8

Average Size at Maturity: 130 – 167 (to 200) ft, 30 – 50 ft spread

16. East Himalayan Fir (Abies spectabilis)

16 East Himalyan Fir Abies spectabilis
Image by S. Rae from Scotland, UK, CC BY 2.0

The East Himalayan Fir and West Himalayan Fir are often mistakenly referred to as Himalayan Fir creating some confusion and inaccurate descriptions online. More scientific sources give more accurate descriptions.

It is a medium to large-sized tree with a conical crown and rough, scaly bark.

Its variously colored twigs are deeply grooved with hairs inside the grooves, and they are densely covered with leaves.

On the upper branches, leaves are bent upwards, creating a V-shaped notch on top between the rows of leaves. On lower branches, they are arranged in horizontal rows.

Leaves are ¾” to 2 ¼” long and are bright green on the upper surface with two white stomatal bands below. The leaf tip is slightly notched or occasionally deeply notched.

It is a moisture-sensitive species of wet forests and will not tolerate dry soils or drought.

In its native habitat, it is Near Threatened by deforestation and logging.

Other Common Names: Himilayan Fir, Webb Fir

Identifying Features: The deeply grooved twigs and the leaves arranged with a V-shaped notch on the cone-bearing branches will help identify the East Himalayan Fir. To differentiate it from the West Himalayan Fir, it typically has shorter leaves, a broader crown, and much larger (3 ½ – 7 ¾” long), dark purple, cylindrical seed cones that sometimes remain on the tree rather than disintegrating rapidly as with all other fir trees.

Native Area: Mountains of Tibet, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan

USDA Growing Zones: 6 – 9

Average Size at Maturity: 100 – 165 ft tall, 20 – 50 ft spread

17. West Himalayan Fir (Abies pindrow)

17 West Himalayan Fir Abies pindrow
Image by By Gv3101992 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The West Himalayan Fir is a large tree growing from 130 – 180 ft tall with a narrow conical crown and short branches that may be horizontal to somewhat pendulous.

The smooth gray bark becomes furrowed with age.

Twigs are grayish-pink or brownish and are always hairless, and their foliar buds are distinctively large, round, and resinous.

Leaves are glossy dark green, 1.5 – 2.5” long, the upper surface is grooved, and they are pointy tipped, becoming deeply notched with age.

The leaves are arranged spirally but twisted to lie horizontally, like most firs.

Seed cones are 3- 5” long, narrowly oblong, violet-purple, and grow singly or in pairs.

It grows at 6500 – 12,100 ft and occupies cool, moist, north-facing slopes. It is a moisture-loving tree that requires high humidity and abundant soil moisture.

Unlike its cousin, the East Himalayan Fir, it is not threatened in its native habitat.

Other Common Names: Himalayan Fir, Pindrow Fir, Pindrau

Identifying Features: West Himalayan Fir, with its narrow conical crown and some of the longest leaves of any fir that tend to be very deeply notched when mature, will help positively identify this tree. When East Himalayan Fir has deeply notched leaves, the long leaves of West Himalayan Fir that always lie in two flat rows, hairless twigs, and the smaller violet-purple seed cones will help differentiate the two. White Pine also has very long leaves in two rows, but it has stomata on both surfaces instead of only the lower surface in West Himalayan Fir.

Native Area: Mountains of northeast Afghanistan east through north Pakistan and India to central Nepal

USDA Growing Zones: 5 – 8

Average Size at Maturity: 130 – 180 (to 220) ft tall, 40 – 60 ft spread

Different Types of Fir Trees & Their Identifying Features (With Photos)

Since true firs belong to the Abies genus, I will discuss some of the more common and some of the more unique Abies species and their identifying features.

I also include Douglas Fir (Psuedotsuga menziesii). Interestingly, Douglas Fir is not a fir, or a Hemlock (Tsuga), as implied by its genus name Pseudotsuga. It is simply its own unique ‘false fir’. I will also explain the differences between a true fir and a Douglas Fir.

Identifying Fir Trees by Their Leaves

All firs, true and Douglas Fir, have needle-like evergreen leaves.

The leaves of most firs are flattened in cross-section, unlike spruce trees, which are rounded or squared and can be rolled in your fingers, while fir leaves typically cannot. This is an easy way to help differentiate a fir from a spruce tree.

Leaf Cross-Section - 1 Landscape - Coniferous Leaves lots
Images by Lyrae Willis (Own Work) for Tree Vitalize

Identifying Fir Trees by Their Leaf Tips (Apex)

Fir trees can also be identified by the shape of their leaf tips.

Fir leaf tips are blunt, obtuse (angled at greater than 90 degrees, often called blunt), rounded, acute (pointy angled at less than 90 degrees), or pointy (acuminate, the edges meet at a very narrow, sharp, pointy angle).

Leaf Apex - 1 Landscape - coniferous multiple types
Images by Lyrae Willis (Own Work) for Tree Vitalize

Certain true fir species also have a notch in the tip of their leaves. Sometimes the notch is shallow or absent, but when present and distinctive, it can be very helpful in identifying those species.

Leaf Apex - 1 Landscape - true fir notched tips
Image by Lyrae Willis – Own Work, for Tree Vitalize

Identifying Fir Trees by Their Leaf Arrangement

Fir tree leaves are usually spirally arranged on the twigs but twisted to lie in two more or less flat rows.

Sometimes they are twisted upwards or forwards, and sometimes they are bent upwards and outwards, creating a unique V-shaped pattern.

Spruce leaves are also arranged spirally but are not twisted and instead spread radially all around the twig. Rarely are fir leaves arranged the same way.

When fir leaves spread radially like that, you can differentiate the two by the cross-section of the leaves and if they can roll in your fingers (spruce) or not (fir), as well as the erect cones of fir vs the pendulous cones of spruce.

Leaf Arrangement - 4 Square - horizontalrows spiralfwd spiralradial vrows
Images by Lyrae Willis (Own Work) for Tree Vitalize

Identifying Fir Trees by Their Leaf Attachment

Fir trees have needle-like leaves that have no leaf stalk and instead are attached singularly directly to the branches. It is often appropriately described as suction-cupped due to its appearance. They do look like little suction cups attached to the twigs. This is the easiest way to identify a true fir from any other coniferous tree with needle-like leaves.

On the other hand, Douglas Fir and hemlock species both have small leaf stalks (petioles) that attach the individual leaves to the branches or twigs.

Spruce trees have a stalk-like pulvinus that attaches their leaves to the twigs.

Pine leaves may look superficially similar but are always bundled in groups of 1 – 7 leaves known as fascicles that attach to the twigs. Even if there is only one leaf (rare), it still has a conspicuous sheath at its base, identifying it as a pine.

Leaf Attach - 4 Square - fascicle petiole pulvinus suctioncups - conifers
Images by Lyrae Willis (Own Work) for Tree Vitalize

Identifying Fir Trees by Their Stomata

Another useful identification feature is the whitish bands on the leaves. These are made of various numbers and arrangements of rows of stomata. Stomata are small openings in leaves where gas exchange occurs, necessary for photosynthesis.

The thickness of the stomatal bands and whether they are found on one or both sides of the leaves are useful for identifying the different types of fir trees.

Stomata - 2 Square - Stomatal band comparison - Firs
Images by Lyrae Willis (Own Work) for Tree Vitalize

Identifying Fir Trees by Their Seed Cones

With true firs, their seed cones always stand upright on their branches, unlike other conifers whose cones mostly hang down pendulously from the branches.

Cones are not easily seen in mature fir specimens since they grow near the top of usually quite tall trees and rapidly disintegrate when the seeds mature. Rarely will you ever see a true fir cone at the base of the tree unless it was knocked out by the wind. They are not persistent like many other conifers.

But if you can see the top of the tree and see upright cones, you are most likely looking at a true fir tree.

Douglas Fir cones are pendulous like most conifers, and they tend to grow more or less all over the tree instead of just the top. They are also more persistent, so you always find some on the ground beneath cone-producing trees. They also have very conspicuous bracts that are forked like a snake’s tongue that will help quickly identify a Douglas Fir.

True fir cones tend to be more smooth, and while they do have bracts, they tend to be shorter, unforked, and usually much less conspicuous than those of Douglas Fir.

Spruce cones also have much smaller bracts, but they hang pendulously, unlike true firs, and their scales are thin and somewhat papery, and they are more persistent and are often found intact at the base of the tree.

Cone Seed Comparison- 3 Square - truefir douglasfir spruce
Images by Lyrae Willis (Own Work) for Tree Vitalize

Identifying Fir Trees by Their Branch Growth

Fir tree branches tend to be ascending (growing upwards to the top of the tree), descending (growing in a downwards direction), or horizontal (growing straight out from the trunk at a 90-degree angle).

Branch Morphology - 4 Square - ascending descending horizontal spreading
Images by Lyrae Willis (Own Work) for Tree Vitalize

Identifying Fir Trees by Their Tree Habit or Form

Tree habit is the overall shape of a tree and how it looks when viewed from a distance.

True fir trees tend to be mostly conical (wider on the bottom and narrower at the top, bullet-shaped).

Douglas Fir trees are typically pyramidal (like conical but with a wider and usually flatter bottom, like a pyramid).

Sometimes they can have a spire-like top which is just a long narrow top on top of a pyramidal or occasionally conical crown.

Irregular crowns that are flattened or somewhat spreading can also form due to wind shear, snow damage, or other environmental factors.

Firs, however, never have weeping crowns.

Tree Habit - 6 Square - conical flattened openspread pyramidal spirelike weeping
Images by Lyrae Willis (Own Work) for Tree Vitalize

Identifying Fir Trees by Their Bark

Finally, the features of bark can also be used to help identify the different types of fir trees.

Fir bark always starts smooth when young. Often, this young bark has resin blisters on it. Sometimes bark will retain this smooth resin-blistered look for quite some time, but generally, it develops shallow to deep vertical grooves or furrows as it ages.

Douglas Fir, in particular, often develops incredibly thick, deeply grooved bark as it ages. On very mature specimens, they are often burned from long-ago fires since their thick bark allows them to survive many forest fires.

Other fir bark develops both horizontal and vertical grooves creating scaly rectangular plates, and some fir has irregular grooves creating irregular scaly plates as it matures.

Bark - 6 Square - deepgroove grooved irregularscales resinblisters scalyplates smooth
Images by Lyrae Willis (Own Work) for Tree Vitalize

Growing Fir Trees in Your Garden

Noble, Balsam, and Fraser Firs are all very popular as Christmas trees and make great landscape trees too.

Fir trees, once established, require little to no maintenance. And the added bonus is that there are no known invasive fir trees, so you don’t have to worry about them escaping cultivation. Having said that, choosing native species, whenever possible, is still best for biodiversity and wildlife values.

If you want to plant a fir tree, it is important to do a little research to ensure success. In addition to understanding the USA Planting Zones, you should check your tree’s specific soil, light, and moisture requirements, then compare that to your chosen site. Check out How to Pick A Tree For Your Yard for more information.

The Stunning Fir Tree

Fir trees are beautiful trees whether in their native habitat or as a landscape tree. They are a critical component of both disturbed and climax forests and provide so many wildlife values to so many different species.

They are also very useful trees for people in landscaping, as shade trees, in the Christmas tree industry, lumber industry, and for pulp and paper.

If you are thinking of planting a fir tree, there are many lovely options available. It is, of course, always best to choose a native species if possible since it provides additional biodiversity and wildlife values. However, fir trees have not been known to become invasive anywhere (excluding Douglas Fir), so non-native fir trees are a safer choice than many other non-native trees.

There are fir trees that will do well in warmer climates and those that will only do well in very cold climates. Be sure to consider your USDA hardiness zone and your planting site to make sure you choose the right tree for the right spot.

I hope this article has inspired you to enjoy looking at fir trees more closely so that you can get to know them and love them as much as I do!

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Lyrae Willis

Environmental Scientist & Plant Ecologist

Lyrae grew up in the forests of BC, Canada, where she got a BSc. in Environmental Sciences. Her whole life, she has loved studying plants, from the tiniest flowers to the most massive trees. She is currently researching native plants of North America and spends her time traveling, hiking, documenting, and writing. When not researching, she is homeschooling her brilliant autistic son, who travels with her and benefits from a unique hands-on education about the environment around him.

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