Even if you’re not a gardener, you may know the fir tree from the popular balsam firs sold as cut trees over the holidays. This tree and other related fir trees make beautiful landscape plants, providing a habitat for birds as well.
The firs (Abies) are in the Pine family and are called conifers since they produce cones similar to pine trees. Since firs often come from mountaintops, they prefer cooler climates as in the north. They tend to be somewhat slow growing, but over time make stately trees. They are not for urban settings as they can be injured by air pollution.
You can tell firs from spruces usually by squeezing the needles. Those of firs are soft to the touch, while spruce needles are sharp-pointed and will prick.
Firs have easy culture. Give them full sun for best growth, and a moist but well-drained soil, preferably an acidic one. Try to avoid clay soils. Diseases to watch for include rusts and root rots, the latter if soils stay too wet. Pests to watch for include the woolly adelgid and bark beetles that may disfigure the tree but not seriously harm it.
The balsam fir (balsamea) with its rich green leaves prefers cold climates, being hardy to USDA zone 3 (-30 to –40 degrees F). It will tolerate some shade and wet soils. It is native in much of eastern North America, especially the higher elevations. Although this tree might eventually reach 75 feet high and 25 feet wide, over 10 years you might expect 10 feet high and six feet wide from planting a foot high seedling. This fir has very fragrant needles you can buy in sachets, or collect when fallen from holiday trees to make your own winter potpourri.
You often can find seedlings for sale in spring from conservation districts in bundles, useful forRead more on backyardgardener.com