One of the trees that grow so well at the Arboretum is the Fir, or Abies. Our climate, geology, soil, and elevation all are perfect for this beautiful species, which includes the well known balsam fir, Abies balsamea. The very essence of Christmas, the balsam fir grows naturally in the East Meadow along the Fern Trail and in Black Spruce Glen. There are some fifty species of fir worldwide, and nine that are native to North America. The Arboretum currently has thirteen different native and non-native firs, mostly planted in the West Meadow Conifer area.
Firs originated in the cool northern sections of the northern hemisphere, and prefer higher altitudes, ample rainfall, and good drainage. They are often found in association with pines and spruce. Sometimes firs and spruce can look very similar, but there is one easy way to tell the difference. The tips of fir needles are rounded, so they are soft (like fur), while the tips of spruce are sharp. Another distinguishing characteristic of firs is that the seed bearing cones are held upright on top of the branches. The cones disintegrate in place on the trees, and they leave the central spike of the cone sticking up like little brown candles on a Christmas tree. Among the arboretum’s firs are the balsam fir, Abies balsamea, the Fraser fir, Abies fraseri, and the Nordman Fir, Abies nordmannniana, generally considered to be the best trees for Christmas trees and wreaths, with aromatic foliage that does not shed many needles as it dries.
Most firs are very large, and need plenty of room to look their best, but the Korean fir, Abies koreana, and its many cultivars, are excellent in the home landscape. Abies koreana ‘Silberlocke’ is an interesting cultivar, dense with curled needles that have a silvery underside, and presenting a great display of purple cones in the spring. Firs are considered to be deer proof, although very hungry deer may nibble at them.
The sticky, yellowish, transparent resin obtained from the balsam fir is used as a cement for glass lenses and for mounting specimens on microscopic slides. The resin obtained from the balsam fir, as well as some other firs, is considered to be a very effective antiseptic and healing agent. It is used as a healing and analgesic protective covering for burns, bruises, wounds and sores. It is also said to be one of the best curatives for a sore throat. A tea made from the leaves is used in the treatment of coughs, colds and fevers. The leaves and young shoots are best harvested in the spring and dried for later use.