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.
f. hudsonia (Jacques) Fern. & Weatherby – A curious, very dwarf mountain form rarely more than 2 ft high, which never bears cones. Leaves about 1⁄4 in. long. Found originally on the White Mountains of New Hampshire, U.S.A.