According to Dr. Craig R. McKinley of the National Christmas Tree Association, the Fraser and balsam fir trees are so similar that some researchers suggest they may have had the same origins. Distinguishing the trees based on appearance is difficult. The primary difference lies in where the trees prefer to grow.
Geographic range is the primary distinction between the Fraser and balsam fir trees. The ranges of the trees do not overlap. Fraser firs are found in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Balsam firs are found in the north, from northern Alberta and Labrador to southern Pennsylvania. The balsam fir has the most extensive range of any fir tree in the U.S. Lending credence to the idea that they evolved from the same species, an intermediary species can be found in the geographical region between the two ranges.
Both species prefer slightly acidic soils and can tolerate sandy soils, although Fraser firs are more tolerant of rocky soils while balsam firs prefer loamy soils. Both species will grow in the shade. Given the geographic ranges of the two species, it comes as no surprise the balsam prefers cooler conditions. The chief difference with respect to preferred growing conditions concerns elevation. Like geographic range, there is almost no overlap in the elevation at which these species prefer to grow. Fraser fir trees grow at elevations higher than 4,500 feet, while balsam firs are found at sea level and rarely grow higher than 5,000 feet.
Because the trees are related, Fraser and balsam firs appear similar. The Fraser fir tends to be the larger tree, growing 80 feet tall, while the balsam is limited to 40 to 60 feet. The branches are angled upward on both trees. Needles arise from a broad circular base, are dark green and have a blunt, flattened shape. The undersides of the needles on both trees tend to be lighter and are marked with two pale bands. These bands mark the location of the stomata, small pores that allow the tree to exchange gases. Both trees produce distinctive resin "blisters" on their bark. The length of the needles differs. Fraser firs have needles 1/2 to 1 inch long, while the needles of balsam firs may be 1 1/2 inches long or more.
Shape of Cones
The best way to tell the difference between Fraser and balsam firs is by looking at the cones. Frasers have bracts--structures that extend over the cone scales--that are longer than the cone scales and are curved. The bracts on balsam firs are shorter than the cone scales. Both trees produce 2- to 3-inch cones annually, and cones ripen and fall apart in the autumn.
The wood of both trees is soft and brittle and is used as pulpwood, pine paneling and light frame construction. The fragrant needles of both trees are used for stuffing pine pillows. The resin of balsam trees also is used as a confection, in making microscope slides and, historically, as a balm for treating wounds. Both trees are popular Christmas trees. The balsam takes nine to 10 years to grow to a suitable size for a Christmas tree, while the Fraser may reach this height in as few as seven years.