Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Balsam Fir – An Adirondack Classic

The smell of balsam fir (Abies balsamea) brings a rush of Adirondack memories to anyone who has spent even a smidgeon of time in the Park. Whether it’s from sun-warmed needles scenting summer days at camp, or the woodsy scent of a balsam pillow on a cold winter day, for many people balsam fir means Adirondacks.

Now, I could use this post to regurgitate the statistical facts of the tree (it has blunt needles up to an inch and a half long, dark purplish cones two to four inches long, smooth to thinly scaly bark studded with resin blisters, grows forty to eighty feet tall and can live up to two-hundred years), but that would be boring. Instead, I’d like to take a look at how the balsam fir has ingratiated itself into the lives of so many people.

But first, let’s address this conifer’s role as a member of the northern forest community. Balsam fir is typically seen as an identifying species for boreal forests (the Spruce-Fir biome), which first appears in New York State in the Adirondacks. Boreal forests, also called taiga, are often characterized by soils that have very high moisture content, sometimes being downright saturated. This suits the balsam fir quite nicely, and because it grows in such soggy conditions, it naturally has a rather shallow root system (rarely going more than 30 inches deep).

Looking at the wildlife of the boreal zone, one might expect that they have a close relationship with balsam fir, either as food or shelter. Both are true, but perhaps not quite to the extent one would imagine. Moose, the charismatic megafauna of the north woods, really dig balsam fir. In fact, in the winter this conifer becomes a major component in the moose’s diet. The smaller member of the deer family, however, pretty much ignores balsam fir as a food source. Instead, for the white-tailed deer balsam fir is sought out only as a shelter, for its dense branches, which reach to the ground, form good windbreaks, providing welcome respite from the arctic blasts of winter. Other wildlife sheltering in beneath (or within) the balsam’s boughs include snowshoe hares, assorted songbirds, red squirrels, grouse (ruffed and spruce), mice and voles.

Does any other wildlife seek out the balsam fir for food? Mice and voles will eat some seeds and may gnaw away at the inner bark; red squirrels will also eat some seeds, bark and wood, but prefer noshing on the flower buds. Black bears have been known to strip the bark from a fir and then lick the exposed wood – do they have a taste for the resin? Grouse are also known to dine upon balsam fir, more in the winter than the summer, but not to any great extent. Their preferred morsels are the buds, branch tips, and needles.

Now, how about people? In the world of logging, balsam fir used to be reviled, for its sticky resinous sap would gum up the blades of saw and axe alike. Today, however, it is actively harvested for its fibers, which are of good quality and make good paper. But the use that most of us usually associate with the balsam fir is its place in our lives as Christmas trees, wreaths and the filler for balsam pillows. Did you know that balsam first have been coveted as Christmas trees for over 400 years? And today they rank as one of the top three species used just for this purpose.

But balsam fir filled many other roles historically. The resin, for example, was once popularly used in the making of microscope slides (it still is today, but to a lesser extent). Not only would it permanently glue the cover slips in place, but it would anchor the specimen and prevent the growth of bacteria or fungi from ruining it in the future. Even more importantly, balsam fir resin has the same index of refraction as glass, which means that when one peered at one’s specimen through the lens of the microscope, it would not be distorted – a real plus in many fields of study.

Balsam resin’s antiseptic and stimulatory qualities have been known for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Long before Europeans entered the picture, the native peoples of this continent used balsam resin for all sorts of medicines. A short list would include treatments for congestion, bronchitis, cystitis, burns, bruises, and general cuts and wounds. It’s also a source of vitamin C, so it was used in the treatment of scurvy.

In these modern times, though, we don’t see too much use in the medical realm for balsam resin, aka Canada Balsam. You can, however, still find it in the product “Save the Baby,” which some of our older readers might recognize. This ointment is very similar to Vick’s Vapo-rub and serves the same purpose: it is rubbed onto the chest of a congested patient and the fumes waft up the nose, into the respiratory system, providing relief and filling the air with a pleasant, non-medicinal, scent.

Still at this time of year, it is the holiday spirit that brings the balsam fir close to home. A balsam fir will grace the living space of many an Adirondack home, and a balsam fir wreath will great visitors at the door. Holiday guests may recline on beds in guestrooms that have small balsam pillows strategically located, some with the classic rhyme:

I miss you in the summer
I miss you in the fall, some
But ‘specially at Christmas time,
I pine fir yew and balsam.

But for me, balsam fir will remain the scent of the north woods in winter. And maybe, just maybe, some day I will snowshoe past a balsam fir and see that elusive moose munching away.


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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.

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