That’s all fir now

Balsam Fir

During the winter, each month, it seems, comes with its own affliction. I just got through the January Itch, and now I’m facing the February Slump. January is the time of the winter when I first start tiring of the cold and the snow and the relatively depauperate faunal landscape. It’s January when I typically do foolish things such as start up a nature blog or invent other projects for myself. By February, I’m nearly burnt out with winter. By February, I’m starting to struggle for blog fodder, but I’m also struggling for the enthusiasm to search for blog fodder. Mostly I’d prefer to curl up in front of the fire with a good book and wait for spring to arrive. The groundhog usually tells us there’s six more weeks of winter, which isn’t terribly surprising, because spring usually arrives sometime around mid-March up here. That’s when we can start expecting the first really prolonged thaws, though we might have a day or two, here and there, of mild temperatures prior to that.

That’s a long way of saying, please forgive me if my posts are a little sparser this month than they usually are. I promise they’ll start to pick up again when I catch March Madness with the mild weather next month. (Jason – please note overly wordy introduction that has nothing to do with main post subject.)

I dug through some of my archived photos looking for something I hadn’t posted yet. Fortunately, I always have a backlog of things. These photos were taken on January 15, but the great thing about trees is that I could go out tomorrow and get nearly exactly the same photos. So timing doesn’t tend to matter as much with trees, at least not in this season.

I walk past this patch of trees on most visits to the 100-acre woods. When I first discovered it, I thought it was Black Spruce. I’d seen Black Spruce in only a couple of locations before: in northern Ontario when I drove along Highway 11 on one of my trips west, it’s the predominant species along the highways there; and in the fen at Rock Ridge. It’s not a lot of experience to draw from, but hey, it’s what I’ve got. What I remembered about them was mostly that they were very narrow trees, almost spindly. Many, though not all, of them had round clumps at their top. But it was the narrow spindly that really stuck with me, they were the only evergreen I knew that grew narrow spindly. So I saw these, and they were very tall, narrow, sort of spindly spruce-like trees. So naturally I assumed they were Black Spruce.

Balsam Fir

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m far from being a plant expert. I specifically majored in Zoology and not Botany in university so that I wouldn’t have to learn all that boring plant crap. Turned out a lot of what I learned was boring animal crap and it probably wouldn’t have mattered all that much. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure it was just the environment that made it boring. I find plants much more interesting now than I did then, but that’s probably because I’m learning it all on my terms. And I don’t have to regurgitate it on an exam.

So not being a plant expert, it escaped my notice for nigh on half a year that these were not, in fact, Black Spruce (you’d think the fact that they weren’t growing in wet habitat might’ve tipped me off but no, I just labeled it unusual). Finally, in January, it occurred to me to go over and take a closer look. And wouldn’t you know it: not spruce. So then the question becomes, well, what are they then?

Balsam Fir

Although there are clues in the needles, the most definitive feature was the trunk. Those narrow, colourful spots that seem to go around the trunk in circular bands are diagnostic of Balsam Fir. You can’t see it as much on the front tree, but on the rear trunk you can also see some of them are raised. These bumps are “resin blisters”, pockets of pitch that form just under the surface of the bark. It’s possible to pop these just with your finger, releasing the sticky substance inside. I’m not clear on why the tree creates pockets of the stuff, but the pitch is used basically the same way as in other species: defense against intruding insects or infections, and to speed closure of wounds.

Balsam Fir

Balsam Fir - no stalks

Balsam Fir are found through the Boreal forest, from northern Alberta east to Newfoundland and Labrador, and south through southern Ontario into the northern states. Given that they’re not restricted to the Shield, I don’t know why I’d never encountered one “in the wild” before (they are, of course, popular Christmas trees, but they’re more expensive than the pines or spruce – perhaps they grow more slowly – and so we never got them, usually opting for spruce). My suspicion is that I was mistaking them for Eastern Hemlock, which look superficially similar. I guess I never really took a close look at the needles, or paid much attention to the trunks. If I’d looked at the trunks, I’d’ve realized that firs have smooth, spotted trunks, spruces have slightly scaly trunks, and hemlocks have ridged trunks. Seems pretty easy now that I know.

Eastern Hemlock

Eastern Hemlock - narrow stalks

The needles of spruce come out of the twig from both top and bottom, while hemlock and fir are either flat, or (sometimes with fir, it appears) only on the top half of the twig. The difference between hemlock needles and fir needles is in their length (fir are longer) and their “stalks”, the narrow bit that attaches the needle to the twig. In firs (previous photo) this stalk is not much narrower than the leaf itself, while in hemlocks (above photo) there is a distinct, thin stalk at the base of the needle. (Sorry for the quality of this image, sure looked like it was in focus on the LCD screen). There seems to often be a slight different in colour, too, with firs a yellow-green and hemlocks a forest green or grass green, as you can see in this convenient side-by-side comparison, below, though this probably is affected by local conditions and individual variation, too.

Balsam Fir (front) and Eastern Hemlock (rear)

Balsam Fir (front) and Eastern Hemlock (rear)

Balsam Fir, it turns out, has a lot of uses. Christmas trees are one, of course, and the wood is often harvested and sold as lumber, either under its own label or sometimes lumped in with spruce.

The pitch apparently has antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties and was used by Native Americans as both topical salves for wounds or chapped lips, and as a tea infusion for internal ailments, particularly colds and flus but also other health problems like infections or arthritis. I gather that, should you cut yourself while out in the woods, you can apply Balsam Fir pitch directly to the wound and it will seal it and help it heal.

It can also make a great fire-starter; pitch smeared on damp wood will burn for an extended period, often long enough to dry out the wood enough to allow it to catch. I saw a mention of its use as a fly trap, smeared on the back of, say, a hard hat where it will catch deer flies when they come to land. Plus it would smell lovely at the same time. Wikipedia mentioned the oil could be used as a natural rodent repellent. It also said the pitch can be used in the preparation of permanent microscope slide mounts (that is, place a dab of pitch on the slide, over your specimen, and add another slide or a cover; the pitch will dry clear and hard and preserve the specimen). Wikipedia also implied (the wording is a bit fuzzy) that historically some binoculars used Balsam Fir pitch to glue the lenses in place.

Balsam Fir

Now that I’m finally aware of the presence of the species around here, I wonder where else I may have seen it and simply written it off as spruce or hemlock. Was there fir around the lake house? Our MAPS stations? The bark pattern looks familiar, but I can’t be certain, now. Something to watch for in the future.

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16 responses to “That’s all fir now

  1. I, too, am one of those people who never had patience to learn about plants (preferring birds) and am now playing catch-up, so this photo essay was very interesting and useful and a lovely way to start my day.

    I’m 50, not THAT old, but I remember using balsam on slides, and I can easily remember dried up balsam falling out of various old implements and things — our old farmhouse was full of old stuff.

    Another use for balsam – I love to buy the little pillows and sacks filled with balsam needles. They make lovely sachets for dresser drawers, laundry baskets, etc. – I keep one in my car and give it a squeeze every time I get in, Nicer than stinky perfumes. Takes me back to the north woods, even if only in my mind,

    • Thanks, Sarah! I’ve probably also encountered dried balsam in many old items but just never realized what it was. The scent of evergreens is a favourite of mine, too. I’ve never seen balsam potpourri or scented pillows (maybe I just haven’t been looking?) but I imagine it wouldn’t be hard to make your own.

  2. Balsam Fir forests are one of my favorites to hike. I’m in Cape Breton the majority of time. Thanks for all the information!

    • I gather fir is one of the most common evergreens out that way, KaHolly. I think I read it’s actually the provincial tree of New Brunswick. It would be a lovely hike!

  3. I keep wanting to learn to identify trees in order to improve my birding, and keep getting baffled by tree books. You’ve made differentiating spruce, fir, and hemlock a whole lot easier. Thanks!

    • Hope it helps, Lavenderbay! Improving my tree ID is perpetually on my to-do list. The new Sibley Guide to Trees is supposed to be very good. I haven’t gotten around to picking it up yet, but intend to.

  4. Balsam fir is my favourite scent in the world. I have a little pillow in my cubicle at work to take me to the North Woods when things get rough.

    I’m glad you “discovered” it and hope you find many more!

  5. I’ll have to take a closer look at our woods.
    February blahs are what make seed catalogues so exciting!

    • I FINALLY got my Veseys catalogues – had to email them in the end. It is a great time to settle down with and flip through a catalogue. I’ve also been eyeballing seed-starting stuff in Canadian Tire and the like, but don’t really need that till March.

  6. uh, although we’ve never met, and despite my deep reservations about human population growth (not to mention the physical impossibility of it all) …sometimes, when you talk *plants*, well, i get to feeling like I want have your baby. ;D Thanks for being an awesome inquisitive field naturalist and science writer and for observing and sharing so much: reading you is like reading a contemporary Waldon. PS: i think I’ll get a dog instead.

    • Heehee. You flatter me! I’m really glad you enjoy reading my posts so much. The blog wouldn’t be much without my readers, just a bunch of words hanging out there in cyberspace. It’s really nice to receive such a compliment. PS. Enjoy the dog. ;)

  7. After reading your post about the balsam fir, I looked it up in my copy of Trees in Canada where I found this note pencilled in. “After a spruce budworm epidemic young balsam firs grow aggressively, outcompeting spruce for a time because because fir grows better in sunlight. Fir is a favorite food of moose; spruce is ignored. By promoting the growth of fir, spruce budworm changes the forest in favor of moose–and wolves.” John B. Theberge, Wolf Country, page 119.

    • Thanks for the additional info, Don. I hadn’t read that about spruce budworm outbreaks, but that’s interesting. I gather they used to be much more common but have been suppressed by the forestry industry.

  8. Thanks for the i.d. help on fir, which I have to struggle to distinguish from hemlock every time I visit the Adirondacks.

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