Abies balsamea, balsam fir, is a coniferous evergreen tree in the Pinaceae family, native to area with cold climates northeastern U.S. and Canada. It is important in northeastern North America, where it forms large single-species stands or is one of the dominant species in several boreal forest types in the northern United States and in Canada. A small- to medium-sized tree with light and relatively week wood, its timber is used primarily for pulpwood for paper manufacture, and in light interior construction (or as plywood), but it is a popular Christmas tree, and is the Provincial tree of New Brunswick.
Balsam fir typically grows to 14–20 meters (46–66 feet) tall, with a narrow, symmetrical, conic crown. Bark on young trees is smooth, grey, and dotted with resin blisters (which tend to spray when ruptured), becoming rough and fissured or scaly on old trees. The leaves are flat needle-like, 15 to 30 millimeters (½–1 in) long, dark green above often with a small patch of stomata near the tip, and two white stomatal bands below, and a slightly notched tip. They are arranged spirally on the shoot, but with the leaf bases twisted to appear in two more-or-less horizontal rows. The cones are erect, 4–8 cm (1.5–3 inches) long, dark purple, ripening brown and disintegrating to release the winged seeds in September.
In addition to its use as for pulpwood and Christmas trees, balsam fir bark and leaves produce oleoresins that are used to make turpentine, varnishes, and Canada balsam (used as a slide fixative) and in the manufacture of medicinal compounds. The resin is reported to have numerous medical uses, as an antiseptic and general healing agent, and was used to treat sore throat and coughs, colds, and fevers by North American native peoples including the Ojibwa, as well as in Western pharmaceuticals such as Buckley’s Mixture cough syrup in Canada.
Balsam fir grows in low swampy areas and areas with ample moisture, although it may also occur on well-drained hillsides. It is moderately important to wildlife. The young trees are used as cover for mammals and nesting sites for birds. Deer and moose browse the leaves, sometimes extensively in winter. At least 8 species of songbirds and several mammal species eat the winged seeds.
Balsam fir is popular for the fragrance of its needles, inspiring poetic reflections: “To anyone whose childhood summers were spent [in the great North Woods], the delicious spicy fragrance of Balsam needles is the dearest odor in all of Nature” (Peattie 1991).
(Burns and Honkala 1990, Harlow et al. 1991, Martin et al. 1951, Peattie 1991, PFAF 2011, Wikipedia 2011)
- Burns, Russell M., and Barbara H. Honkala, tech. coords. 1990. Silvics of North America. Vol 1. Conifers. Agriculture Handbook 654. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Washington, DC. Available online from http://na.fs.fed.us/spfo/pubs/silvics_manual/Volume_1/abies/balsamea.htm.
- Harlow, W.M., E.S. Harrar, J.W. Hardin, and F.M. White. 1991. Textbook of Dendrology. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill. Pp. 160–179.
- Martin, A.C., H.S. Zim, and A.L. Nelson. 1951. American wildlife & plants a guide to wildlife food habits: the use of trees, shrubs, weeds, and herbs by birds and mammals of the United States. Prepared for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Dept. of Interior. New York: Dover. Pp. 292–3.
- Peattie, D.C. 1991. A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Pp. 57–59.
- PFAF. 2011. Abies balsamea—Mill. Plants For A Future online database. Retrieved 20 November 2011 from http://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Abies+balsamea.
- Wikipedia. 2011. “Buckley’s.” In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20 November 2011 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buckley's.