Thursday, December 23, 2010

Balsam Fir

Nature Watch
By Susan Thurn,
Cable Natural History Museum

As we head into one of our biggest holiday weeks, some of my most favorite sights and smells include the lights and the smell of our holiday tree, a beautiful balsam fir. The history of the Christmas tree has many interesting and different stories. The Egyptians might not have celebrated a holiday with a fir or pine, but were part of a long line of cultures that treasured and worshipped evergreens. In fact, when winter solstice arrived, they brought green date palm leaves indoors to symbolize life's triumph over death.

Another balsam fir holiday story is associated with a German, St. Boniface, who cut down an oak tree in order to disprove the legitimacy of the Norse gods to the local German tribe, and was amazed when a fir tree sprung up from the roots of the oak. Another cultural tradition included a tree that was taken to the town market center and lit aflame to celebrate the holidays. Yet another story of the tree includes the decoration of a small tree with nuts, apples, pretzels and paper flowers for the children. Germans and Scandinavians placed evergreen trees inside their homes or just outside their doors to show their hope in the forthcoming spring. No matter what the celebration, today the balsam fir is still a perfect tree as it has the benefit of not shedding its needles when they dry out, as well as retaining good color and scent.

What is special about balsam fir? It’s a great tree to shake hands with, with very soft, individual flat needles. Balsam fir bark is thin, gray, and smooth except for numerous blisters on younger trees. The scientific name "balsamea" is so named because of the many resinous blisters found in the bark. These balsam blisters contain a sticky, fragrant, liquid resin and so they are sometimes called “blister pine.”

A balsam fir provides food and cover for red squirrels, moose, snowshoe hares, deer, ruffed grouse, crossbills, and chickadees. The needles are also eaten by some caterpillars. Porcupines eat the seeds.

The balsam resin has been used to produce Canada balsam, a type of turpentine, and was used as a glue for glasses, optical instruments, and for preparing microscope mounts. It has also been used as a cold remedy and an EPA approved nontoxic rodent repellent. It is a tree of many uses!

I don’t have to enjoy the tree in my living room, as balsam fir grows commonly in the forests around us. Be sure to get outdoors this holiday season and shake hands with a balsam fir!

For over 42 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and exhibit, On Lake Owen: The Art of Walter Bohl, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs.

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