wpe5.jpg (2127 bytes)U.P. TREE  IDENTIFICATION  KEY
from Michigan State University Extension

Balsam Fir, Eastern Hemlock, and Canada Yew
Fraser Fir, White Fir, and Douglas-fir
Families Pinaceae and Taxaceae

BFIR-EHEM.jpg (73109 bytes)These three species share distinctly flat, single needles.  In contrast with spruces, needles usually grow from the twig on opposite sides of the branch, rendering a "flattened" appearance.  Hemlock needles are attached to the twig with a small stem.  Fir has no stem, but the longer needles are attached by what might look like tiny suction cups.  Both fir and hemlock have white lines on the underside of the needles.  Yew does not.  Yew is an understory shrub and does not develop into a tree in the U.P.  Balsam fir and hemlock are members of the Pinaceae family.  The Pinaceae is a family of the northern hemisphere.  There are 9 genera and about 210 species.  The genera Abies (firs), Tsuga (hemlock), and Pseudotsuga (Douglas-fir) are shown on this page.  Other U.P. genera are Pinus (pines), Larix (tamarack), and Picea (spruces).  The family Taxaceae, the yews, is a small family with only 3 genera and 13 species.  Two genera are located in North America and the third in New Caledonia in the South Pacific.  Taxus is the largest genus with one representative in the U.P. 

Fir Balsam.jpg (41479 bytes)  BALSAM FIR (Abies balsamea)
Other Names: Balsam, Canada Balsam, Eastern Fir
  Key ID Features:  Needles, Crown Form, Pitch Blisters

Balsam fir NEEDLES are about 3/4 to 1-1/4 inches long with two white stripes running down the underside of each needle.  Balsam fir SCENT is most commonly associated with Christmas.  The CONES are rarely seen, as they grow at the top of the tree and disintegrate scale-by-scale.  The cones are about 2-4 inches long, stand erect, and are very pitchy.  BARK is mostly smooth and steely gray.  On healthier trees, PITCH POCKETS are present.  The pockets look like blisters, sometimes an inch across.  When pinched, they shoot out very sticky pitch.  CROWNS on mature trees are shaped like steep church spires, a distinctive feature that can be seen at a distance.  Balsam fir will grow on a variety of wetland and upland SITES.  It's the most common species by number of trees due to the ability to grow in the shade is resistant to deer browse. Common ASSOCIATES include spruce and aspen.  Common pests:
spruce budworm, balsam woolly adelgid, Lirula, red heart, drought, road salt

Hemlock.jpg (42322 bytes)  EASTERN HEMLOCK   (Tsuga canadensis)
Other Names:   Hemlock Spruce, Canada Hemlock
  Key ID Features:  Needles, Cones, Bark

Hemlock NEEDLES are about a half-inch long, shorter than balsam fir.  The small stems that hold the needles onto the twigs are uniquely hemlock.  The small, papery CONES are only about 3/4 of an inch long.  Except in small trees, the BARK is thick, corky, and heavily ridged.  It sometimes looks somewhat orange, but is usually a medium brown color.  Years ago, hemlock bark was peeled for the tannin that was used in treating animal hides.  Woodpeckers called sapsuckers frequently leave rows of peck-holes to provide sap for their diet.  Hemlock grows to average HEIGHTS of 60 to 100 feet, but can reach DIAMETERS of up to four feet.  Hemlock is an UPLAND SPECIES that often occurs in ASSOCIATION with northern hardwoods, usually in cooler drains and north slopes.  Common pests: hemlock borer, hemlock woolly adelgid, sapsuckers

CANADA YEW  (Taxus canadensis)
Other Names:  Ground Hemlock
Key ID Features:  Needles, Berries, Understory Habit

Although yew is not a tree and rarely grows taller than six feet, it can be confused with regeneration of balsam fir and hemlock.  The NEEDLES are flat, half-inch to an inch long, but have no white lines on the undersides.  The tips are sharply pointed, where the fir and hemlock tend to be rounded.  Yew will often form straggly THICKETS in the understory of northern hardwood stands.   The red berry-like FRUITS are about a 1/4-inch in size, each containing a pit.


Fraser Fir  (Abies fraseri)

A native of the Appalachian Mountains, it is widely planted as a Christmas tree.


White Fir  (Abies concolor)

A native of the Rocky Mountains, it is used as an ornamental and sometimes planted as a Christmas tree.


Douglas-fir  (Pseudotsuga menziezii)

Not a true fir, Douglas-fir is a native of the Rocky Mountains. It, too, has been planted as an ornamental and for Christmas trees.  It does not usually grow well in the U.P. due to the cold winters.  The CONES have long, forked, papery "tongues" that stick out from in between the cone scales.  The NEEDLES are not flat but soft and otherwise similar to firs and hemlocks.

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This site created and maintained by Bill Cook, MSU Extension Forester for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.   Editing and modification is ongoing.  Submit suggestions, questions, and corrections to cookwi@msu.edu or call 906-786-1575.