Some of the most popular choices for Christmas trees belong to the fir genus (Abies). The most common fir trees used are the balsam fir, Fraser fir, noble fir and Nordmann fir.
Some characteristics that should help you distinguish the fir trees from other conifers:
These evergreens can be identified by the place where the needle attaches to the branch, which looks like a suction cup. The soft needles are attached to what looks like a suction cup on the branch. Unlike the pulvini of the spruce trees, they detach cleanly from the branch without leaving a peg behind. The needles also aren't formed into fascicles like the pine trees.
The fir tree cones are softer than other coniferous trees and come apart at the end of the season to spread their seeds. They also grow upwards instead of hanging down.
As happens with common names sometimes, the name Douglas fir is a misnomer. The genus for that tree is Pseudotsuga, which translates out to fake (Pseudo) hemlock (Tsuga), meaning that this tree is not a true fir.
If you want to celebrate Fir Tree Appreciation Day, break out your party hats on June 18th.
In addition to being a popular choice for a Christmas tree, the balsam fir is used for its aromatic oils and resins, as well as in making paper.
John Fraser, a Scottish botanist, was the inspiration for this fir tree's name. The Balsam woolly adelgid (Adelges piceae) has decimated many of these trees since it was introduced into the native range of the Fraser fir.
The grand fir is one of the fastest-growing fir tree species, as well as one of the tallest. The cones on this tree turn yellow as they mature.
Parts of this fir can be used to create an essential oil and incense. This tree can do well in shady areas.
This is one of the smaller firs. It grows slowly and will fit into most landscapes. These firs will start producing cones at an early age. The cones are distinctive; they appear in late spring and come in shades of blue or purple. This is a good option for a living Christmas tree.
The noble fir was a popular choice for our Christmas tree when I was growing up. There are distinct tiers of branches with open spaces, so you can showcase ornaments without the tree looking like it has bare spots. This is the tallest species of fir tree.
Alexander von Nordmann, a Finnish zoologist, is the man that this tree was named after. The cones are blue-green when immature with brown bracts peeping out between the scales. This species can tolerate living in a container (as long as they were started in one) so it can be a good choice for a living Christmas tree.
This fir tree gets its name because the bark turns dark red as it matures. It handles frost better than drought.
This fir species produces an essential oil that smells like pine trees. The needles are silver on their underside. This was the tree that was chosen for the first Christmas trees in Europe.
This fir tree species has female cones that look like raspberries. The needles are very sharp, inspiring the moniker of hedgehog fir.
The subalpine fir trees in this picture exhibit the flag type of krummholz formation where one side is destroyed by strong winds. These trees grow very slowly so they are a good candidate for creating bonsai. The subalpine fir can be planted in areas with some shade.
This fir tree is often grown in Western landscapes. It is very drought tolerant once established if it is growing in its native range and offers some tolerance in other areas. The white fir features bluish-green needles.