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F Is for Fir: But What Is That?

Both fir and pine trees are conifers, bearing cones, and members of the same plant family, Pinaceae. This family is also joined by cedars and larch.

It can be difficult to tell apart the different groups of fir trees, but the needles and cones can help with identification.

Fir tree needles
Fir tree needles by Alex Ainge

If a twig bears a single needle that is flat to touch, then it’s most likely to be a fir. If the single needle has sides and does not roll between your fingers, it could be a spruce. Pine needles generally bunch out from the twig - two, three or even five at any one point.

Fir trees are also distinguished by cones that stand upright on the branches like candles. Fir tree cones are softer than other cones of coniferous trees, and they come apart at the end of the season to spread their seeds.

The fir is most common at Christmas time and several different species are used, for example, Balsam fir, Fraser fir, Noble fir and Nordmann fir. The latter is the most popular choice, one of the reasons being that it has a lovely symmetrical shape with strong branches. The needles are shiny, mid green and soft to touch.

As we know, fir has many other very important uses-timber being just one of them. The common timber fir is Douglas Fir. It is one of the most popular softwoods used both in factories and at home, and it is quite an interesting species. Despite being a softwood, it possesses features that enable it to be used in tasks mostly meant for hardwoods. During its growth, it is said to be very shade-intolerant. As a result, it prunes its limbs, hence leading to the development of longer and straighter fibres. This makes it very strong and resistant to physical impacts.

 In aromatherapy uses, as an essential oil, Fir is beneficial for coughs, colds, flu, arthritis, muscle aches and rheumatism. Its properties include being an analgesic, antiseptic, antitussive, deodorant, disinfectant and expectorant. It has uplifting qualities and is considered a stimulant, bringing alertness to the mind or fighting general fatigue. It blends well with other evergreen oils, such as Pine, Spruce and Cedarwood, but also with Blue Chamomile, Lavender, Lemon or Rosemary. It is considered non-irritating, non-sensitizing and non-toxic, but always consult with a physician before use, especially when pregnant.

Another useful product from a fir tree is resin. If you make a cut on the bark of a Norway spruce, resin will slowly ooze out, gradually solidifying.

The purpose of this sticky excretion is to prevent the entry of infectious fungi, bacteria and insects, and to deter herbivores from consuming the foliage and bark.

There is however, one conifer tree species that excels in its production of resin - balsam fir.

A native of eastern and central Canada as well as north-eastern America, the balsam fir can also be found as a relatively common tree in the conifer tree plantations of Western Europe. Much of balsam fir resin is concentrated within prominent blisters on the bark. It's the resin contained within these many blisters that provides such an easily acquired bushcraft resource.

The sheer stickiness of balsam fir resin can, when applied to a small cut, staunch bleeding.

Because of its antiseptic properties, resin also forms an effective seal against infection and some types of burns.

Let’s not forget the relationship with wildlife and Fir. Squirrels, siskins and crossbills are among the many species that eat seeds from the cones of many firs. A squirrel feeds on the seeds of a Douglas fir cone by peeling off each scale, discarding the scale and removing the seed. It is not just the wild areas of fir planting that encourage birds. On Dartmoor, conifer plantations support birds, including goshawks, that are not found in open woodland.

Fir tree in Selsey
Fir tree in Selsey by Alex Ainge

So when you see the odd fir tree around the Manhood Peninsula, celebrate it as much as you do any other tree. So as we put “all hands to the pump to deal with climate change”, planting a fir tree will reward us. After all, it’s a tree for a lifetime, not just for Christmas.


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