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Tree tops with Balsam Fir
Illustration of Balsam tree

(Abies balsamea)

What makes a fir, a fir? Notice the balsam fir's cones standing straight up on top of the branch. This is a sign of a "true" fir, and completely opposite of the cones you see hanging down on most other conifers. These cones are a unique purple-green color and grow from 2-4 inches long. After the first year, the cones mature and the seeds ripen. Then, both the seed and the scales of the cone drop to the ground leaving a pencil-like center standing on the branch like a spike. Historians think that this spike when snow-covered inspired the Germanic people to decorate trees with candles or lights. Evergreens also inspired the Yuletide song "O Tannenbaum" (O Christmas Tree).

The balsam fir is found in forests in the northern half of Wisconsin, usually growing with white spruce in cool, moist, or shaded places. Balsam fir trees are medium sized, standing about 40-60 feet with a trunk diameter of 1-2 feet. Look for bark that is thin, smooth and grayish, marked by blisters filled with resin or balsam pitch. The "leaves" are needle-like and flat, this is one sign it's a fir. The needle-leaves are dark green on top and have silvery white bands underneath. Leaves measure ½ to 1 inch with rounded points and are twisted, arranged in what looks like two rows.

Illustration of balsam fir pinecone

Balsams are used by people for many products, especially holiday trees. They are also used for pulp to make paper products. The resins from the pitch blisters on the bark is called "Canada Balsam" and is used as a clear cement for glass in optical instruments and microscope slides.