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A tree 60 to 80 ft high; young shoots downy; winter buds red, very resinous, roundish. Leaves on young trees in two opposite sets spreading horizontally; 1⁄2 to 11⁄4 in. long, 1⁄20 to 1⁄16 in. wide, the uppermost leaves much the shorter, rounded or notched at the apex, glossy green above, with a few broken lines of stomata near the tip; the under-surface with two narrow whitish bands each composed of four to eight lines of stomata. On cone-bearing shoots the leaves are often pointed (sometimes sharply) as well as rounded or slightly notched, and they are stiffer, broader (1⁄12 in. wide), and curved upwards rather than arranged in two sets. Cones 21⁄2 to 31⁄2 in. long, 1 to 11⁄4 in. wide, dark purple or olive-green, the bracts either quite enclosed within the scales or slightly exposed.
Native of Canada from Labrador to the Upper Yukon; south of the border it ranges into the Lake States and through New England into Virginia; introduced by Bishop Compton in 1697. It is among the biggest failures of firs in this country, for it is short-lived and becomes ungainly after twenty or so years. But when young it is an elegant tree and grows as well in south-eastern England as it does in Scotland. In previous editions, trees at Keillour, Perthshire, were mentioned; planted in 1830, some had attained a height of 60 ft by the end of the century but were even then falling into decrepitude. At the present time there are two small plots in Scotland; in one of these, at Kilmun in Argyllshire planted in 1930, the best is 45 × 23⁄4 ft (1964). In the south of England the few specimens range from 30 to 55 ft; the tree at Leonardslee, Sussex, although not among the tallest, is very shapely and slender. Ellen Willmott had a balsam fir in her famous garden at Great Warley, Essex.
The species is closely related to A. fraseri, under which the distinctions are referred to. It yields a transparent balsamic resin, known as Balm of Gilead or Canada Balsam, and is popular in parts of N. America as a Christmas tree.
Even in the wild, and under optimum conditions, the balsam fir has a girth at maturity of only 4 to 5 ft and a height of 40 to 60 ft. Its performance in the British Isles is therefore not so poor as might seem at first glance. The best measured recently are: Crarae, Argyll, pl. 1935, 36 × 33⁄4 ft (1976); Ardross Castle, Ross, 48 × 23⁄4 ft (1980); Headfort, Co. Meath, Eire, pl. 1925, 48 × 3 ft (1980); Fenagh House, Co. Carlow, Eire, pl. 1918, 42 × 31⁄4 ft (1975).
f. hudsonia – H.J. Welch distinguishes between cv. ‘Hudsonia’, a clone, or possibly a group of similar clones, with a flattened-globose or cushion habit and semi-radial foliage, and ‘Nana’, of globose habit and radially arranged leaves (Dwarf Conifers, p. 107; Manual, p. 142). The former is more usual in cultivation. Dwarf forms of the balsam fir are not uncommon in the mountains of New England and New York State.