Balsam Fir – Abies balsamea

Balsam Fir – Abies balsamea
Family Pinaceae: Pine, Cedar, Spruce, Fir
One of the most popular Christmas trees, it's also called Canadian balsam or bracted balsam fir.

The Balsam Fir is listed as endangered by the State of Connecticut (3)
Balsam fir is native to North America, a coniferous evergreen tree.  At maturity it may reach a height of 40 to 90 feet (12-27 m) and a d.b.h. of 12 to 30 inches (30-75 cm).  Maximum age is about 200 years.  Balsam fir has a dense, narrowly pyrimidal crown terminating in a slender, spirelike top.  Open-grown trees may have live branches extending to the ground, but trees in well-stocked stands have dead, persistent lower branches.  The needles are flat, resinous, and 0.4 to 1.2 inches (1-3 cm) long.  Erect cones occur on the upper side of 1-year-old branches in the upper crown.  The bark is gray and smooth and contains numerous raised resin blisters.  On older trees the bark becomes brown and scaly but is less than 0.5 inch (1.2 cm) thick [1].

Balsam fir has a shallow root system that is mostly confined to duff and upper mineral soil layers.  Roots rarely penetrate more than 30 inches (75 cm) below the ground surface, except in sandy soils.

Balsam Fir - Abies balsamea
This balsam fir, grown from seed, is a 57-year-old Morton Arboretum specimen [2].

Balsam fir wood is used primarily for pulpwood and lumber for light frame construction.  It is also used extensively for cabin logs.  The wood is lightweight, relatively soft, low in shock resistance, and has good splitting resistance.  Balsam fir is not well suited for use as posts and poles because it decays rapidly.  Minor wood products include paneling, crates, and other products not requiring high structural strength.

Spruce and ruffed grouse feed on balsam fir needles, tips, and buds, which often make up 5 to 10 percent of the fall and winter diet.  Red squirrels feed on balsam fir male flower buds, and less frequently on leader and lateral buds in late winter and spring when other foods are scarce.  Stands attacked by the spruce budworm attract numerous insect-eating birds, especially warblers and woodpeckers.

Balsam fir provides important winter cover for white-tailed deer and moose.  Lowland balsam fir stands are used extensively by white-tailed deer as winter yarding areas, and by moose with calves during severe winters.  During summer, deer, bear, and moose often rest under the shade of balsam fir trees. Young balsam firs provide cover for small mammals and birds.  Martens, hares, songbirds, and even deer hide from predators in balsam fir thickets.  Grouse and songbirds seek shelter during winter within the evergreen foliage.  In Maine, fishers often nest in witches brooms in balsam fir trees.

Balsam fir is a popular Christmas tree in the East and grown on plantations for this purpose.  The branches are used to make Christmas wreaths.

Bark blisters contain oleoresin, which is used in the optics industry as a medium for mounting microscope specimens and as a cement for various parts of optical systems. (6)

1. United States Forest Service Silvics Manual Conifers / Balsam Fir
2. Morton Arboretum accession 521-50*1, photos: Bruce Marlin
3. USDA NRCS Threatened and Endangered species
4. USDA, ARS, National Genetic Resources Program. Germplasm Resources Information Network
5. University of Michigan Native American Ethnobotany
6. Uchytil, Ronald J. 1991. Abies balsamea. In: Fire Effects Information System, USDA

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