Culturally and Economically Important Nontimber Forest Products of Northern Maine
Balsam fir, Abies balsamea
Other Names: Sapin (French), puhpukawihqimus (Maliseet)
"We always made Christmas wreaths with balsam fir. And we harvest an awful lot of them. We’ve been doing it since we were children. My mother did it when she was young. Her brother helped with Christmas time. So, we just carried on the tradition. It’s a three generation tradition."
The smell of balsam fir needles is enough to evoke images of the northern Maine woods. Much of the forests of the St. John River watershed are comprised of naturally occurring spruce--fir trees. Owners of large tracts sometimes suppress the growth of broad-leaf trees in favor of softwood stands, increasing the amount of fir available for saw timber and pulpwood. Besides being an important source of wood products, the balsam fir is a versatile tree with numerous craft, utilitarian and medicinal uses. Historically, fir resin was applauded for its medicinal properties among Acadian residents of the St. John River watershed and was ingested to treat kidney ailments. Resin blisters would be carefully harvested and placed on sheets of wax paper that could be refrigerated until they were needed. Loggers would also use fir resin topically to treat gonorrhea. Although not as big of a business as in Washington County (Downeast Maine), wreathmaking is an important small-scale industry in the St. John River watershed. For the two months leading up to Christmas, business owners hire seasonal employees to harvest and process fir boughs into wreaths that will be shipped all across the country.
Physical Description: Balsam fir is a small to medium sized tree with a spire-like form that can reach up to 80 feet in height. Needles are ¾ -1 inch long, flat to curved, with a shiny dark green top and silvery underside. Balsam fir bark is smooth and gray, characterized by the presence of numerous blisters that contain a strongly scented, sticky resin. Purplish-green cones range from 2 to 4 inches long, and stand upright on branches. Because of its thin bark and shallow root system, balsam fir is particularly susceptible to being killed by fires.
Habitat: Balsam fir can be found on a variety of soil types and textures. It does best in cool, moist areas with a pH of 4 to 6. However, very wet summers may negatively affect the color of needles, and make trees more susceptible to fungal diseases in the fall. Many people we spoke with thought that the quality of balsam boughs from the St. John River watershed differed from boughs harvested in Downeast Maine. Some thought it was because Downeast fir grows in a more favorable soil with a slightly different pH.
Uses: Fir boughs are often collected and processed into wreaths and decorative swags at Christmas time. Boughs of lesser aesthetic quality are sometimes collected after precommercial thinning and sold to companies that extract essential oils for cosmetics. The resin of balsam fir, often found in blisters on tree trunks, has antiseptic and analgesic qualities and can keep small wounds from festering. Fir resin is also collected by individuals for sale to Canadian companies for use as turpentine and optical slide mounts. Fir needles are delightfully aromatic and are often used in potpourri or as filling for small scented pillows. One interviewee we spoke with likes to place fresh fir needles in a pot of water on his woodstove, in order to release the pleasant woodland scent while humidifying his house. Another interviewee uses small balsam fir limbs to create sturdy hooks around his barn and at campsites.
Preparation: Once boughs are harvested, they are cut into smaller pieces and stacked into small bundles that are attached to wreath forms. Resin can be applied directly onto skin or can be refrigerated for future use.
When to harvest: Balsam boughs are harvested for wreath-making in November and December. Don’t keep boughs inside for too long, otherwise they will dry out. Balsam fir gatherers keep an eye out for bough and needle deformities caused by gall midge, balsam twig aphids and needlecast. Resin can be harvested any time of the year, but is easier to obtain from blisters when they are not frozen.
Tips for Sustainable Harvesting/Management: Only gather balsam fir boughs after the tree goes dormant, and needles have frozen or ‘set’ to branches. In northern Maine, this usually occurs by early to mid November. Never harvest more than 1/3 of the live limbs on fir trees-- they rely on their needles to photosynthesize, and provide energy that keeps the trees alive.
Balsam fir boughs are one of the few nontimber forest products that many owners of large tracts require a permit and fee to harvest. In fact, some industrial landowners do not allow any ‘tipping’, or gathering of fir boughs on their lands, because they believe it compromises their management. One resin harvester we spoke with mentioned that some landowners are concerned that popping blisters hurts the trees, but she has been collecting from the same areas for almost 30 years and has not seen any tree damage as a result of her activities.
Photos by Michelle Baumflek
Information about medicinal plant uses is provided for educational purposes only. It should not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment and is not a substitute for consultation with a licensed physician.
Last Modified: 05/24/2010