How to Grow and Care for Balsam Fir

Balsam fir tree (Abies balsamea) cones

mirceax / Getty Images

Balsam fir trees are known for their blue-green foliage, evergreen aroma, and the balsam blisters that appear on their bark. This species has a slow growth rate for a tree, averaging about one foot per year.

The foliage of Abies balsamea is comprised of blue-green, dense needles with silver-white bands underneath. This tree has an overall conical shape. They produce 2 to 4 inch long cones that stand straight up from the foliage. These start out a beautiful purple color and mature into a gray-brown tone. The seeds and buds are used as food by a wide variety of wildlife. However, these trees are considered mildly toxic to humans and pets. According to the University of California, balsam fir trees are mildly toxic to humans. The needles are toxic to pets as well.

 Common Name  Balsam fir
 Botanical Name  Abies balsamea
 Family  Pinaceae
 Plant Type  Tree
 Mature Size  50-75 ft. tall, 20-25 ft. long, 20-25 ft. wide
 Sun Exposure  Full, partial
 Soil Type  Loamy, sandy, moist but well-drained
 Soil pH  Acidic
 Bloom Time  NA
 Flower Color  NA
 Hardiness Zones  3-5, USA
 Native Area  North America
Toxicity Toxic to people, toxic to pets

Balsam Fir Care

These aromatic trees are best planted in the spring or fall when bought as bare roots plants. For container-grown plants, they can be planted any time of year, and it is best to get them into the ground as soon as possible. Balsam fir trees are often used as privacy screens and windbreaks. They do not require much care other than the occasional watering. Pruning is not often needed except to remove damaged or dead branches. 

This type of easy-to-grow fir tree is not often plagued with pests or diseases. However, they are not immune to problems from balsam wooly adelgids, bark beetles, spruce budworms, aphids, scale, root rot, cankers, needle rust, or blight. They are not very tolerant of pollution from urban areas. 

Light

Balsam fir trees do well in full or partial sunlight. Newly started trees prefer sheltered areas for the first year of growth.    

Soil

Balsam fir trees require sandy, loamy, acidic soil to thrive. Moist, but well-draining soil conditions are key to a healthy balsam fir tree. These trees do not handle clay soils well. Try applying several inches of mulch to the top of the soil to help retain moisture. 

Water

Established balsam fir trees only require supplemental water during prolonged droughts. For young trees, water weekly until established. These trees really soak up the water, so be sure to water very heavily. 

Temperature and Humidity

Balsam fir trees enjoy cool weather and do not handle heat and humidity well. They thrive in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 5. As an evergreen variety, these trees sport their deep green needles year-round. 

Fertilizer

Fertilizing young trees once in the spring can help encourage new, healthy growth. They respond well to well-balanced fertilizer. However, too much fertilizer can cause damage to these trees. They do not need fertilizer more than once a year and mature trees do not require fertilizer at all. 

Propagating Balsam Fir

Propagating balsam fir trees through cuttings is possible, though it can be difficult to achieve. Many cuttings end up dying. However, by being aware of a few things, you can tip the scales in your favor and hopefully end up with a thriving cutting.

First off, cuttings are more likely to take root when taken from shorter, younger trees. Take cuttings in the spring or summer, selecting a branch from the bottom half of the tree. Gather the following supplies: a sharp pair of garden snips, a small pot, well-draining, moist potting soil, a plastic bag, a rubber band, and a mister bottle.

  1. Using sharp garden snips, trim a cutting that is about 6 inches long. 
  2. Remove the needles from the lower part of the cutting. 
  3. Dip the cut end into root hormone
  4. Bury the cut end several inches into the moist potting soil, then gently press the soil around the cutting. 
  5. Mist the soil to keep it evenly moist. 
  6. Place the plastic bag over the cutting, securing it to the pot with the rubber band. 
  7. Open the bag daily to allow it to receive fresh air and to check the soil. Mist when needed. 
  8. The cutting should root in about a month. 
  9. After this, remove the plastic bag and keep the cutting in a partially shaded area. 
  10. Keep the new tree in a protected area for around one year, then acclimate it to full sun the following season. Plant it in your landscaping location.   

How to Grow Balsam Fir From Seed

Propagating balsam fir trees from seed is the most popular and most successful form of propagation. To do this, follow these steps: 

  1. Cold stratify the seeds by placing them in moist sand or potting soil inside a plastic bag. Then place them in the refrigerator for one to three months. Another option is to plant directly into the garden in the fall, where the cold temperatures will naturally stratify the seed. 
  2. Once stratified, plant the seeds around 1/4 inch deep into moist, well-draining, sandy, loamy soil. 
  3. Keep the soil moist. Germination should occur in about a month. 
  4. Once the seedling is several inches tall, replant to a larger pot and keep them in a shaded, protected area for one year. 
  5. During the following year, acclimate the seedling to full sunshine and plant it in your location of choice.  

Overwintering

Because these trees are native to naturally cold areas, they are designed to withstand cold winters. Therefore, all that is needed to overwinter these trees is to add an extra layer of mulch to help insulate the roots.

Common Problems With Balsam Fir

Balsam fir trees are rather hardy and do not often struggle with many problems. However, yellowing needles and rot resulting from various conditions can affect their growth.

Yellowing Needles and Stunted Growth

If the needles of a balsam fir begin yellowing and the tree is not growing as it usually does, this can be a sign of root rot. This is caused by too much water in the soil. If these signs present themselves, cut back on watering and allow the soil to dry out. If the soil is not draining properly, try adding in sand to increase drainage.  

Weakened Structure and the Presence of Mushrooms

Another problem that may come up with balsam fir trees is the growth of mushrooms out of their trunks or branches and a weakened structure that may break easily. These are signs of heart rot, which is a form of fungus that attacks the innermost wood of the tree. This may occur from the fungus entering into a wound on the tree or from the tree weakening because of less than ideal conditions. If this occurs, remove the damaged or infected branches, if possible. Be sure not to damage the branch collar.   

FAQ
  • How long does it take for a balsam fir to grow?

    With ideal conditions, the balsam fir will grow about one foot each year. They will reach their mature size anywhere from 15 to 30 years. 

  • What does the balsam fir tree look like?

    These evergreen trees have a tall, conical shape and flat, dark green needles with silver-white bands on their undersides. Their bark is thin, gray, and covered with little resin blisters. The upright cones start out purple and mature into a gray-brown color.

  • Does this type of evergreen have a scent?

    Yes, balsam fir trees have an unmistakable evergreen, spicy aroma. 

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. University of California Agriculture, and Natural Resources. “Toxic Plants (by Scientific Name).” Ucanr.Edu, https://ucanr.edu/sites/poisonous_safe_plants/Toxic_Plants_by_Scientific_Name_685/.

  2. “Amaryllis Toxic to Dogs.” Petpoisonhelpline.Com