The Gymnosperm Database


Ontario's northern forest, growing around a rock in Killarney Provincial Park: clockwise from top are Abies balsamea, Tsuga canadensis, Thuja occidentalis, Pinus resinosa, Pinus strobus, and Picea mariana.


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


For the type variety, Abies balsamea (L.) Mill. var. balsamea 1768: Pinus balsamea Linnaeus 1753.

For variety Abies balsamea (L.) Mill. var. phanerolepis Fernald 1909:

A hybrid origin for var. phanerolepis was suggested by Liu (1971), but this finding is not supported by analysis of chloroplast DNA, which identified haplotypes of var. phanerolepis as constituting a subset of haplotype diversity in var. balsamea, and no haplotypes shared with A. fraseri (Clark et al. 2000).

Populations west of Ontario lack 3-carene and have other minor chemical differences separating them from eastern balsam fir (Hunt 1993). "In Alberta, populations intermediate between Abies balsamea and may be classified as A. balsamea × bifolia" (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, 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. It has been a popular selection for the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree, being used 6 times (as of 2017) since the tradition began in 1964. Commercially, the species is also used for pulpwood and yields the oleoresin known as Canada balsam (Burns and Honkala 1990).



The epithet balsamea refers to the sap resin, balsam, which historically had various medicinal and practical uses (such as cementing of compound lens elements) that have subsequently become archaic. The resin still sees some naturopathic use.

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).


American Forests 1996. The 1996-1997 National Register of Big Trees. Washington, DC: American Forests. This is a dated citation; the big tree register is now available online.

Clark, C. M., T. R. Wentworth, and D. M. O'Malley. 2000. Genetic discontinuity revealed by chloroplast microsatellites in eastern North American Abies (Pinaceae). American Journal of Botany 87(6):774-782.

[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, Aljos. 1990. Pinaceae: drawings and descriptions of the genera Abies, Cedrus, Pseudolarix, Keteleeria, Nothotsuga, Tsuga, Cathaya, Pseudotsuga, Larix and Picea. Königstein: Koeltz Scientific Books.
- Provides a detailed account, with illustrations.

The FEIS database.

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

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 2018-01-20