Balsam fir; Not just a tree for the festive season

In Flora, Uncategorized by couchiching

“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit. ”  Robert Louis Stevenson

Forested areas in our region contain a wide variety of majestic deciduous and coniferous trees. As you travel further north in Simcoe County, the forest type shifts as you get closer to the Canadian Shield. You will begin to notice that there are more conifer trees, especially the common, yet important, balsam fir.

The balsam fir (Abies balsamea) can be readily identified by the fragrance given off by its crushed needles. The rich, pungent odour may remind you of Christmas, and of a tree decorated with lights and ornaments. Balsam firs are one of the more popular trees used during the holiday season. Today most of them are grown on specialty tree farms.

Although they share a common background, native balsam fir trees grow in a different form and can thrive in a variety of conditions. Tolerant of shade, they can be found growing in mixed stands or dense stands of their own kind. These tightly packed trees with lots of lower branches provide excellent cover and shelter for small mammals such as rabbits, hares, and squirrels. In the winter, tracks of these animals are often found around fir trees where the creatures have sought shelter from predators and the harsh weather conditions.

Balsam firs have adapted to a variety of soil types including acidic northern conditions. Their roots do not extend very deep into the earth leaving some trees vulnerable to blow down from strong winds.

Like other conifers, balsam firs produce needles rather than leaves and like other conifers (other than tamarack) these needles stay on the tree year-round. The needles are flat, narrow and thin and have a waxy coating to minimize water loss. They also contain a type of resinous “antifreeze” to prevent damage from freezing temperatures. The thick clusters of short needles on the balsam fir helps reduce the flow of wind thereby preventing moisture loss.

Balsam fir needles are very similar to hemlock needles but a quick way to tell them apart is look closely at an individual needle. Balsam fir needles are a bit longer and are attached directly to the stem, whereas hemlock needles have a tiny yet distinctive stem attaching each needle to the twig.

Fir trees produce large seed crops every 2-4 years and like other parts of the tree, the cones contain a strong resin which discourages consumption by some birds and squirrels. It doesn’t stop all hungry creatures, such as cross bills, and many seeds are eaten during the harsh winter. The remaining seeds in the cones can survive on the ground over the winter and germinate in the spring if the conditions are right.

Looking at the trunk of a balsam fir tree, you can see small resin blisters on the younger bark. When broken, these blisters release an incredibly sticking fluid often called Canada Balsam. This fluid has been used commercially to mount microscope slides and as a glue for optical equipment. During forest fires, the resin blisters can burst into flames, adding fuel to the fire.

Balsam fir trees are common on the northern properties protected by the Couchiching Conservancy; Severn Woodlands, The Alexander Hope Smith Nature Reserve, The Robert & Emily Fawcett Natural Area, and the Thomas C. Agnew Nature Reserve.

Written by Gayle Carlyle.