Balsam Fir Abies balsamea
Family: Pinaceae (Pine)
Branching: Opposite (Evergreen)

This is a very common tree in Eastern Canada and can be quite prolific in small groves where a past tree-fall has opened the canopy.  It's needles are usually in a flat, horizontal line, slightly curved upward.  But depending on where it's growing it can look very different.  The best ID feature is its bark, which is distinctive at all ages (excluding other firs, which don't usually occur in the east).  The young bark is smooth with prominent, raised "blisters" full of resin.  Even when it ages, the resin blisters are quite obvious; the bark remains relatively smooth.  Probably the most similar species is Eastern Hemlock, which can be distinguished by its branching (look at the tip of a branch overhead and see how many of the twigs on either side are not perfectly opposite; Fir is always perfectly opposite) and its bark (Hemlock bark becomes scaly quite early, unlike Fir).  Also, Fir needles tend to be longer, thinner, and less whitened beneath.  Often, it can resemble the Spruces, but Fir needles are attached by a small "suction cup" which leaves a circular scar when it falls; Spruce needles are attached by a small "peg" or stalk.  Bracted Balsam Fir (A. balsamea var. phanerolepis) differs in that its cones have a slender "bract" projecting from behind each scale.

Balsam Fir branch.  Notice the flat needles and symmetrical branching

The needles usually grow along a horizontal plane.

Sometimes, the needles point almost straight up (especially when growing in open areas)

The circular leaf scars of Firs

Fir cones grow upright from the branch, unlike other conifers

This cone is from the variety "Bracted Balsam Fir" (A. balsamea var. phanerolepis) commonly found in the Maritimes

Young bark, showing the resin in the blisters

Another view of young bark

A strange-looking Balsam Fir in Cape Chignecto, NS.  There were several of these trees around, and they looked more like spruces than firs...

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copyright 2008 Josh Sayers
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