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Stunted tree near timberline, Mt. Katahdin, Maine [C.J. Earle, 2003.07.15].


Cone and axils on a krummholz tree on Mt. Katahdin, Maine [C.J. Earle, 2003.07.15].


Cone on a krummholz tree on Mt. Katahdin, Maine [C.J. Earle, 2003.07.15].


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Conservation status

Abies balsamea

(Linnaeus) Miller 1768

Common names

Balsam fir, blister or balm-of-Gilead fir (Peattie 1950); eastern fir or Canada balsam (Elias 1987); sapin baumler [French] (Hunt 1993).

Taxonomic notes

Syn: Pinus balsamea Linnaeus 1753 (Hunt 1993).

"Balsam fir is frequently segregated into two varieties (e.g., Scoggan 1978-1979) based on whether the bracts are included (var. balsamea) or exserted (var. phanerolepis Fernald), the latter considered by Liu (1971) to be a hybrid between Abies balsamea and A. fraseri. Lester (1968) demonstrated, however, that bract length may vary within a cone, annually, and from tree to tree. Nevertheless, a tendency exists for the exserted variety to be found most commonly from Newfoundland south through New England (Hosie 1969; Jacobs et al. 1984); it is not found west of Ontario. Western populations lack 3-carene and have other minor chemical differences separating them from eastern balsam fir (Zavarin and Snajberk 1972; Hunt and von Rudloff 1974). Morphologic variation in balsam fir has been studied mainly east of Ontario; the populations to the west have been ignored for the most part, although they may yield stronger evidence for species subdivision" (Hunt 1993).

"In Alberta, populations intermediate between western Abies balsamea and A. lasiocarpa var. bifolia (Moss 1953; Hunt and von Rudloff 1974, 1979) may be classified as A. balsamea × bifolia. In West Virginia and Virginia, populations of balsam fir tend to be more similar to A. fraseri than are more northern populations (Jacobs et al. 1984)" (Hunt 1993).


A narrowly conical tree 12-23 m tall, 10-60 cm dbh, with a spire-like crown. Bark gray, thin, smooth, in age often becoming broken into irregular brownish scales. Branches diverging from trunk at right angles, the lower often spreading and drooping. Twigs mostly opposite, finely pubescent, yellow grey-brown or green-brown. Buds hidden by leaves or exposed, brown to reddish-purple, conic to globose, scales slightly pubescent, 9-11 mm in diameter, resinous, apex acute; basal scales short, broad, nearly equilaterally triangular, glabrous, resinous, margins entire, apex sharp-pointed. Needles 1-ranked (particularly on lower branches) to spiraled, curved upwards on branchlets exposed to full sun; cross section flat, grooved above, keeled below, shiny dark green above, 12-25 mm long by 1.5-2 mm wide, green or grey-green below; stomata in 0-4 rows at midleaf above, these more numerous toward leaf apex, with (4-)6-7(-8) stomatal rows on each side of midrib below; base twisted; odor pinelike (copious ß-pinene); apex slightly notched to pointed; resin canals large, ± median, away from margins, midway between abaxial and adaxial epidermal layers. Male cones 15mm long, at pollination red, purplish, bluish, greenish, or orange. Female cone resinous, sessile, apex round to obtuse, cylindric to broadly ovoid, 4-10 cm long by 1.5-3.75 cm wide, blue-grey-green or purple turning grey-brown or violet-brown; scales scales ca. 1-l.5 × 0.7-1.7cm (relationship reversed in more western collections), finely pubescent; bracts included or exserted and reflexed over scales. Seeds triangular, 3-6 × 2-3mm, body brown; wing about twice as long as body, brown-purple; cotyledons ca. 4. 2n=24 (Silba 1986, Hunt 1993).

Distribution and Ecology

Canada: Alberta, Saskatchewan; Manitoba, Ontario, Québec, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland; France: St. Pierre and Miquelon; USA: Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine at 0-1700 m elevation in boreal and north temperate forests (Hunt 1993). See also Thompson et al. (1999). Hardy to Zone 2 (cold hardiness limit between -45.6°C and -40.0°C) (Bannister and Neuner 2001).

Distribution data from USGS (1999).

Big tree

Height 30 m, dbh 120 cm, crown spread 14 m; in Fairfield, PA (American Forests 1996).


A tree-ring chronology covering 245 years, presumably based on living tree material, was collected in 1996 at Lac Liberal, Canada (470 m elevation, 49.06667°N, 72.10000°W) by C. Krause and H. Morin (NOAA 1999).


Has been used in an extraordinarily diverse array of studies. Many have looked at stand dynamics from various perspectives: postfire recovery, disturbance response, fir wave dynamics, beaver pond impacts, stand growth and yield models. Growth declines have been studied in the context of gamma radiation exposure (duck and cover!), heavy metal contamination, and atmospheric acid/nitrate deposition. Spruce budworm impacts have been studied extensively, some work has been done on the species' occurrence at timberlines, and there are some ecophysiology studies. Perhaps the oddest study is one relating tree growth to fluctuations in wolf and moose populations on Isle Royale in Lake Superior (search the Bibliography of Dendrochronology).


The balsam fir has long been a popular choice for Christmas trees in eastern North America, and is widely farmed for that purpose. Commercially, the species is also used for pulpwood and yields the oleoresin known as Canada balsam (Burns and Honkala 1990).



Balsam fir is the provincial tree of New Brunswick (Hunt 1993).

This is one of the most cold-hardy trees known; specimens prehardened to subfreezing temperatures showed no adverse effects from immersion in liquid nitrogen (-196°C) (Sakai and Weiser 1973).


Lester, D.T. 1968. Variation in cone morphology of balsam fir, Abies balsamea. Rhodora 70:83-94.

[NOAA 1999] Data accessed at the NOAA Paleoclimatology Program Tree-Ring Data Search Page, 1999.02.24. URL:

Sakai, A. and C.J. Weiser. 1973. Freezing resistance of trees in North America with reference to tree regions. Ecology 54:118–126.

See also

Farjon (1990).

The FEIS database.

Morris, R.F. 1948. How old is a balsam fir? The Forestry Chronicle 24:106-110.

Prasad and Iverson 1999.

Seymour, Robert S. 1995. Northeastern spruce-fir forests. In Status and Trends of the Nation's Biological Resources. USGS electronic publication., accessed 2002.09.03, now defunct.

Last Modified 2014-12-05