About the Balsam Fir

Abies balsamea (L.) Mill.

A dense steeple-shaped conifer of small to medium stature, with prominent resin blisters on smooth grey-brown bark; flat unstalked needles; and upright dark purple cones.

Other common names: Fir, Balsam, Var

Thriving best in a damp climate, balsam fir is common throughout the Maritimes, especially on the Cape Breton uplands. It grows to around 18 m (59 ft.) tall and 0.3 m - 0.6 m (1 ft.- 2 ft.) in diameter, and matures in 60 to 70 years (maximum around 150.

Fir is a valued softwood species, excelled here only by spruce for pulpwood. It has some lumber uses. Many Nova Scotia landowners now cultivate it profitably for Christmas trees. Cultivation includes weeding and thinning natural stands and shaping individual trees. siteFir grows best on moist, well-drained loams, but adapts itself to cold swamps and rocky exposed headlands, where it usually becomes stunted. At high elevations it may not even look like fir, with its gnarled trunk twisting along the ground for protection and its boughs flattened by gales and storms.

This species can survive several decades of shading by other trees and still respond quickly when the shade is removed. It is found either in pure stands, or mixed with white pine, the spruces, tamarack, hemlock, birch, aspen, and maple. Its vigorous, deep-rooted seedlings tend to replace those of the more valuable spruce after cutting. The fir is short-lived. However various insects and diseases will attack it after 40 or 50 years, especially on drier sites.

There are two chief insect enemies. The balsam woolly aphid, which may blanket the bark, can deform or kill whole stands in a few years. The spruce budworm is a small needle-eating caterpillar, which prefers fir. Defoliation for five years or more in a row kills the trees.

The clear, oily resin ("Canada balsam") is used to make glass cement for microscope slides because it bends light to the same degree as glass. Pioneers used balsam to heal sore throats, and woodsmen still apply it as a stopgap dressing for cuts.

Deer and moose browse the foliage heavily. Porcupines girdle many trees. The seeds are eaten by several bird species, including ruffed grouse.

Found along opposite sides of twig like oars on a racing shell (spruce has bottle- brush arrangement) 1.9 cm-3.8 cm (3/4in.-ll/2 in.) long; dark shiny green above, two white lines below; blunt-tipped or notched (spruces more or less sharp); fragrant when crushed or dried.

Upright; dark green to purple, often with whitish resin droplets; ripening about October and falling apart, leaving erect, naked centre spikes ("candles"). Spruce cones hang down, and fall whole after maturity.) Seed purplish, two per cone scale.

On young stems a smooth dull green, later with grayish patches and numerous raised resin blisters to 3.8 cm (11/2 in.) wide. Mature stems red brown; slightly scaly; breaking into small plates on old trees.

Creamy white; soft; light; weaker, less durable in dampness than spruce or pine; can be separated from the similar spruce by absence of tiny white dots (resin tubes)in dark part of annual ring. Air-dry weight about 385 kg/m3 (24lb./cu.ft.). (Density about 20 per cent lower than for black spruce.)

abridged from "Trees of Nova Scotia", G.L. Saunders, Nimbus Publishing 1996