Return to Native Trees of Colorado

Distinguishing the Fir Trees of Colorado

by S. K. Wier

Subalpine fir

All true fir trees have flat, soft needles about an inch or two long, and fat upright resinous cones on top branches which disintegrate on the tree after one season, the scales and seeds falling to the ground and an upright spike remaining on the branch.

Subalpine Fir : needles soft and flattened, 1 to 1 3/4 inches long on lower branches except shorter near treeline. The second-most common tree of the high forests, this tree forms tall, narrow, spire-like trees, the narrowest trees of the Rocky Mountain forests. The foliage tapers to a point less than a foot across in the upper part of the tree.

Corkbark Fir : similar to Subalpine fir, but the bark becomes thick and soft or corky and broken into ridges, in color grey, ash-white, creamy-white, or pale- yellowish. It is found only in the southern half of Colorado and northern New Mexico.

White Fir : needles flattened and soft, 1 3/4 to 3 inches long on lower branches. Found below 10,000 feet, in the mountains of central and southern Colorado and of northern New Mexico.


The Douglas-Fir is not a true fir tree at all, but is listed here due to the similarity of name. Douglas-Fir has short flat soft needles, similar to a true fir, but the cones are very distinctive and unlike true fir cones. They are pale brown, 1 to 3 inches long, and have papery three-pointed strips protruding between the cone scales. The cones hang down from the branch, and fall intact from the tree.

Finding abundant Douglas-fir cones on the ground under a tree is a strong clue to identification.

The Douglas-Fir is not a true fir; it has similarities to spruces and hemlocks as well as firs.

Text Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2001, 2010 S K. Wier
Reproduction, retransmission, or redistribution prohibited without written consent of the author.