The term fir trees has at least three separate and distinct meanings. First of all, fir trees in scientific terminology refers to the 40 species of the genus Abies. The pine family, of which the firs are members, contains 11 general in all and has 210 species. Second of all, fir trees is commonly used by lay people to refer to any coniferous evergreen. And third, fir trees is used to designate artificial Christmas trees of any type.
In scientific categorization, fir trees are actually in a separate category from other trees in the pine family, which includes, pines, firs, larches, etc. They can be distinguished by their leaves, often called needles. A true fir’s needles grow out of the branch and leave scars on the branch when they fall. Cones grow upright, with each scale holding two seeds. When the cones fall, they leave a small, upright attachment on the branch. Other pines have different leaf and cone arrangements.
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There are 12 species of fir trees native to the United, most are found mainly in and west of the Rocky Mountains. The ten western first include four that can grow as tall as 200 feet (60 m), including the California red fir, the noble fir, the Pacific silver fir, and the white fir. The wood of western firs is of lower quality than pine and spruce. In the eastern United States, as well as in Canada, one finds the balsam fir, which is one of the most popular choices for Christmas trees and other ornamental use. The balsam fir characteristically grows to a height of between 40 and 60 feet (12 to 18 m).
Fir trees also grow in other parts of the world, including Central America, Europe, northern Africa, and Asia. An example of a species native to Europe and Asia is the silver fir. Used for ornamental purposes as well as timber, it grows to 150 feet (45 m). Not only is its wood used for carpentry, but it is also used as a source of turpentine and pitch.
People may be surprised to learn that the Douglas fir is not a true fir, although it is, of course, in the pine family. The Douglas fir comprises more or less six species of pine tree that are found in Western North America and eastern Asia. The tree species most commonly called by this name is, like the balsam fir, a popular Christmas tree.