Abies balsamea

Balsam Fir

Abies balsamea, Balsam Fir

Balsam Fir, BWCA
Photo © by Earl J.S. Rook

Flora, fauna, earth, and sky...
The natural history of the northwoods


  • Abies, from the Latin, "silver fir, fir tree"
  • balsamea, from the Latin, "balsam-like"
  • Common Name, from the fragrant resin
  • Other common names include Balsam, Canadian Balsam, Canada Balsam, Eastern Fir, Bracted Balsam Fir, Blister Fir


  • Kingdom Plantae, the Plants
    • Division Coniferophyta, the Conifers
      • Class Pinopsida
        • Order Pinales
          • Family Pinaceae, the Pines, Spruce, and Firs
            • Genus Abies, the true firs, about 40 species in the Northern Hemisphere, nine, including balsamea, native to the US.
  • Taxonomic Serial Number: 18032
  • Also known as Pinus balsamea
  • Closely related to Fraser fir (Abies fraseri), with which it may share a recent common ancester.
  • Hybridizes with Subalpine Fir (Abies lasiocarpa) where ranges overlap in the Canadian Rockies.


  • A native, evergreen conifer with a mature height of 40'-90' and a diameter of 12"-30". Maximum age about 200 years.
  • Form narrowly pyrimidal with dense crown terminating in a slender spire. In the open, live branches may reach to the ground but in more typical forest settings persistent dead lower branches are common.
  • Leaves short, flat, resinous needles (½"-1¼").
  • Bark thin, gray, smooth with resin blisters; brown and scaly on older trees.
  • Root system shallow, mostly confined to duff and upper mineral soil layers, rarely penetrating more than 30" except in sandy soils.
  • Flowers
    • Male strobili about 3mm long at maturity, yellowish-red and tinged with purple, developing in the axils of needles along undersides of year-old twigs, usually in dense clusters. Their position in the crown is mostly within 15' of the top and is almost always below the female strobili.
    • Female strobili about 1" long at maturity and purplish, found singly or in small groups, confined to the top 5' of the crown. They are located on the upper side of the twig and, like the male strobili, develop on the previous year's twig. Flower production is best on the outer end of branches.
  • Cones cylindrical, perched upright on year-old branches in the crown.
  • Seed 2mm-3mm, brown, with brown-purple wing about twice as long as body.


  • The only fir native to the North Woods.
  • Distinguished from the spruces by flat needles and upright, cylindrical cones. Spruce needles are four-sided; cones are oval and pendant.
  • Field Marks
    • Flat, evergreen needles
    • Upright, cylindrical cones


  • Alberta to Newfoundland, south to northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Also the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia.


  • A wide variety of upland and lowland sites, including alluvial flats, peatlands, and swamps, in pure, mixed coniferous, and coniferous/deciduous stands.
  • Soils mostly acid, though tolerating a wide range of soil acidity, on textures from heavy clay to rocky soils, underlain by a variety of materials, including gneiss, schist, slate, sandstone, and limestone. Most common on cool, medium to wet sites with soil pH of 5.1-6.0.
  • Late successional or climax species. Replaced after fire by pioneering hardwoods and conifers, such as Aspen (Populus tremuloides), Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera), Balsam Poplar (Populus balsamifera), Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana), and Black Spruce (Picea mariana), it is generally absent for the first few postfire decades.
  • Shade tolerant with less demanding seedbed requirements than many associates, it readily establishes under a canopy of hardwoods and conifers. Usually common in understory beneath pines, aspen, and paper birch. In the continued absence of fire, may assume dominance as the canopy of the pioneering trees begins to die off.
  • Subject to windthrow, especially on shallow wet soils.


  • The least fire-resistant conifer in the NE US. With thin, resinous, easily ignitable bark, shallow roots, and seeds without protective endosperm, most fires kill the tree and destroy the seeds. It can reestablish only if surviving seed trees are present, making it a rare postfire pioneer.
  • Fire opportunists such as Aspen (Populus tremuloides), Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera), Black Spruce (Picea mariana), and Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) usually seed in aggressively following fire, quickly dominating the site, leaving Balsam Fir rare or absent for the first 30-50 years after fire, after which it gradually establishes under their canopy.
  • Fire creates seedbeds favorable for germination and establishment. If seed is available, it establishes readily on burned sites.
  • Mortality often 70%-100% after the collapse of a Spruce Budworm outbreak, providing dry fuel for explosive fire. Suppression in Spruce Budworm killed stands is extremely difficult. These hot fires transport large amounts of peeling bark, fine twigs, and branchlets in convection columns which start spot fires downwind.
  • Decay after fire rather slow. However, budworm killed trees quickly succumb to wood rotting fungi.


  • Trees:
  • Shrubs: Moose Maple (Acer spicatum), Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), Beaked Hazel (Corylus cornuta), Labrador Tea (Ledum groenlandicum), Twinflower (Linnaea borealis), Red Raspberry (Rubus idaeus)
  • Herbs: Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis), Large Leaf Aster (Aster macrophyllus), Blue Bead Lily (Clintonia borealis), Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), Sweet Bedstraw (Galium), Rose Twisted Stalk (Streptopus rosea), Starflower (Trientalis borealis), Violets (Viola spp.)
  • Ground Covers: Dicranum Moss (Dicranum spp.), Ground Pine Clubmoss (Lycopodiumobscurum),Schreber's Feather Moss (Pleurozium schreberi)
  • Mammals
    • Moose: Major winter food, more often when snow is deep and moose populations high (perhaps because the twigs weigh 8 to13 times more than deciduous twigs of similar length, requiring less time and effort to consume equivalent amounts.)
    • White-tailed Deer may eat small amounts due to its abundance, but it is not a preferred food.
    • Red squirrels feed on male flower buds, and less frequently on stem buds in late winter and spring when other foods are scarce.
    • Cover: Winter cover for white-tailed deer and moose; summer shade for deer, bear, and moose. Marten, hares, songbirds, and even deer hide from predators in balsam thickets.
  • Birds: Spruce and ruffed grouse feed on needles, tips, and buds, while stands attacked by the spruce budworm attract insect-eating birds, especially warblers and woodpeckers. Grouse and songbirds seek shelter during winter in the evergreen foliage.
  • It is susceptible to attack by ambrosia beetles (pinhole borers), longhorn beetles, Buprestid beetles and Sirex wood wasps.


  • Weathered the last Ice Age in the southeastern states, migrating north again 11,000 - 12,000 years ago where its shade tolerance allowed it to make inroads in the broad White Spruce forests.


  • Wood white to pale brown, without distinctive odor or taste. Lightweight and soft, with good splitting resistance, but low in shock resistance and nail holding capacity. Specific Gravity .33 green to .41 dry.
  • Wood works easily, finishes well, and takes nails, paint, and varnish well. Reportedly resistant to preservative treatments.
  • Wood used primarily for pulp and light construction lumber. Lightweight, relatively soft, low in shock resistance, resistant to splitting, but not well suited for posts and poles due to rapid decay. Minor wood products include paneling, crates, and others not requiring high structural strength.
  • Branches used to make Christmas wreaths.
  • Bark blisters contain oleoresin, used in the optics industry as a medium for mounting microscope specimens and as a cement for optics.
  • Popular Christmas tree species
  • Managed stands usually converted to other species because of their susceptibility to Spruce Budworm and their relatively low timber value.


  • Seed Production begins about age 20, or at 15', and regular seed production after about age 30. Some seed produced every year, with heavy seed crops at 2-4 year intervals. Most seeds shed in autumn, but small amounts fall throughout the winter and into spring.
  • Seed Dispersal of the winged seeds primarily by wind. Most fall within 80'-200' of the tree, but some travel over 500'. Some dispersal by small mammals.
  • Germination rates relatively low (20%-50%). Only about half of the seeds are sound and even these remain viable for less than a year under natural conditions. Seeds germinate between late May and early July.
  • Seedlings, with sufficient moisture, establish themselves on almost any soil, but results generally best on mineral soil. Other good seedbeds include rotting wood embedded in humus because it can remain moist even during prolonged drought, and rotting logs and stumps because they have a tendency to shed hardwood leaf litter which can smother seedlings. Hardwood leaf litter is a poor seedbed; seedlings on deep layers of hardwood litter usually die within a few weeks of germination. Seedlings very shade tolerant and, once established, withstand many years in the shade..
  • Layering occurs in swamps and mossy areas, and under White Pine (Pinus strobus) and Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) overstories.


  • By seed, following cold stratification.
  • Seeds have dormant embryos and should be stratified in moist sand at about 40º F for at least 30 days before planting.


  • Hardy to USDA Zone 3 (average minimum annual temperature -40ºF)
  • Cultural Requirements
    • Sun to partial shade
    • Soil well-drained, high in organic matter, with pH 4 - 6.5
    • Medium moisture
  • Size 20'-35'W x 60'H
  • Good for screenings, mass plantings, and windbreaks, if sufficient moisture provided.
  • Cultivars include
    • Abies balsamea 'Nana', a dwarf cultivar known since 1866
  • Cultivars and species available by mail order from specialty suppliers or at local nurseries
  • Insects: Spruce Budworm the most serious pest. Cyclical epidemics have killed trees over vast areas. Other serious insect pests include Hemlock Looper and Blackheaded Budworm, both defoliators of mature stands.
  • Rot: Butt, heart, and root rots cause decay in living trees. Heart rots often infect more than half of 70 year old trees.



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Last updated on 28 April, 2005