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True Fir (Abies)

  • Erect cones perch on the topmost branches like small owls; scales fall off cones when seeds ripen.
  • Leaves of most species are about 1" long and are highly aromatic. Most are blunt to the touch. All have white bands on the underside but some have are green on top while others are blue-green to white.
  • Twigs without needles have tiny, flat, circular leaf scars.
  • Young stems have fragrant resin blisters; buds are most commonly rounded and are often covered with wax, resin, or curved needles.


True firs are so named to distinguish them from Douglas-firs, Chinese-firs, and a number of other pretenders. Sometimes they're called "balsam firs" because of tiny pockets of resin, or balsam, that occur in their bark. About 40 species of true firs grow in cold regions of the northern hemisphere. True firs are well-adapted to snowy environments because their short, stiff branches and pointed tops shed snow without breaking.

Seven species of true fir are native to western North America, and Oregon has six--more than any other state: grand fir, Pacific silver fir, noble fir, California red fir, subalpine fir, and white fir.

All true firs have the following characteristics:

  • Cones that perch like little owls on the topmost branches--so, look aloft for large, erect cones. They often glisten with drops of fragrant, sticky resin.
  • Cones of true firs do not fall intact like other conifer cones. In late fall, their scales tumble off one by one when the seeds have ripened. As a result, cones can only be used to recognize true firs in summer and early fall.
  • Gently pull a needle away from its twig and notice the tiny, circular scar left on the twig. This circle makes it easy to recognize a true fir at any season.
  • Young stems have fragrant resin blisters. Stick them with your finger and they pop, oozing a clear liquid. Resins and oils from the bark and foliage of true firs are used for a variety of products, including perfumes, adhesives, and pharmaceuticals. Some attribute a healing effect to this liquid.
  • The buds of true firs are rounded and are often covered with resin, wax, or curved needles. Buds near the ends of twigs often occur in clusters of three or more.

species pageFor more information on the true firs native to the Pacific Northwest, go to the species page or see "Trees to Know in Oregon".

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