Balsam Fir is a medium size slender conifer growing at maturity from 40 to 60 feet high with a straight tapering trunk with a diameter of 9 to 20". The branches are spreading and form a slender pyramid. In the far north and on mountain tops it will be shrub size. It is frequently used as a Christmas Tree. It grows by adding whorls of branches around the leader.
The bark is smooth, grayish, with a silvery luster on mature trunks and marked with blisters filled with rosin. Twigs are yellow green when young, turning gray later. The buds are small, brown and resinous and either exposed at the tip of the twig or hidden by the leaves.
Leaves are flat needle-like, about 3/4 to 1 inch long, with a rounded point which may be notched. They are a shiny dark green above and silver-white under with, usually, 2 whitish bands. The stromatal pores occur in 6 or 7 rows on each side of the midrid on the needle underside. Needles are arranged on a twig in what looks like two ranks such that they point out from each side of the twig giving the appearance of being a flat plane, while they actually are attached all around the twig. Leaves are resinous and fragrant. Older branches will be dotted with needle scars.
Flowers: Balsam Fir is monecious, with separate male and female flowers on the same tree. Male flowers are purple to yellow brown and are in groups on the undersides of the leaf axils. At pollination time they range in color from red and purplish to bluish or green. The female flowers are purple and are inconspicuous in the upper crown; they turn brown at maturity before shedding their scale. Both sexes are found on the same branch.
The fruit is an upright resinous oblong cone, 2 to 4" long, purplish in color when young, and ripens the first year. They are usually found arranged in rows on the branch. The cone scales are 3 to 6 mm long, finely hairy, wider than long and fall off with the ripe seeds, leaving the central part on the branch looking like a spike.
Varieties: Two are found in the literature - var. balsamea and var. phanerolepis based on differences in cone scales. Flora of North America (Ref # W7), among others, does not find enough evidence to support this, but through studies have not been done.
Habitat: The species likes to grow in cold climates, moist or shaded places, with loamy soils but not gravely or peaty. The root system is shallow.
Names: The genus Abies is the classical Latin name for 'fir'. The speces balsamea refers to "balsam", "balsamic", and is a reference to the aromatic properties of the resin. The leaves also give off a pleasant aroma. The author name (L.) refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. His work was amended by ‘Mill.’ which refers to Philip Miller, Scottish botanist (1691-1771) who was chief gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden and wrote "The Gardener's Dictionary". In years past this species was sometimes called "Balm of Gilead" but we prefer to apply that name to the Balsam Poplar, Populus balsamifera.
Above: A young Balsam Fir in the Wildflower Garden. Drawing from North American Sylva by Francois Michaux. See his notes at page bottom.
Below: 1st photo - the upper side of the needles on a twig. Note how they have twisted to form a flat plane. 2nd photo - the twig underside showing the pale silver colors and the white bands on either side of the midrib. Here you can see the needles growing from all sides of the twig but twisting into the flat plane.
Below: 1st photo - new spring growth. 2nd photo - the back of a small tree.
Below: 1st photo - a maturing female seed cone - upright on the twig. 2nd photo - clusters of male pollen cones near the end of branches.
Below: A seed cone scale with attached seed. Photo Steve Hurst, USDA-NRCS Plants Database.
Notes: Eloise Butler first planted the tree in the Garden in 1909 with trees from the Park Board Nursery. More were planted in 1910 and 1911. Martha Crone planted the tree in 1933, '34 and '37.
Balsam Fir is a species of the northern forests - found in Canada from Alberta eastward and north to the arctic circle. It grows to timberline in the north and to 4,000 feet in the south. In the U.S. the range is eastward from Minnesota and Iowa to the coast and south as far as Indiana, Ohio and Virginia. In Minnesota it is native to northern and northeast counties, as far south as Douglas and Crow Wing, then south along the St. Croix valley to Washington County. It has also been found in Winona and Filmore county in SE Minnesota. Landscape specimens will certainly be found elsewhere. This is the only species of Abies found in Minnesota.
Uses: The wood is soft and light, coarse grained and not very strong. Therefore it sees little use in construction but is a major pulpwood species and is much admired as a Christmas tree and for use in wreaths. At lone time the resin from blisters on the trunk was used for mounting microscopic specimens.
Historical notes: When Francois Michaux wrote has 3 volume work on North American Trees (North American Sylva 1817-1819) (Ref. #26d) he said this: When standing alone and developing itself naturally, its branches, which are numerous and thickly garnished with leaves, diminish in length in proportion to their height and form a pyramid of perfect regularity. As an ornamental tree it retains its beauty for only the first 15 or 20 years of its existence, during which period, when in health and vigor, it is extremely beautiful both in color and form. After this period it loses its lower branches, has a sickly hue, and should then be dismissed from the pleasure grounds. In his day it was usually found in Canada growing with Hemlock and Black Spruce. Further south it was only found on the summits of mountains.
Lore: Densmore (Ref. #5) reports that the Minnesota Chippewa used the resin of Balsam Fir as a headache remedy by placing some on a warm stone and then when it melted, inhaling the fumes. The gum-like resin was also combined with bear's grease and used as a hair ointment. She also reports being told that little twigs of this species, boiled together with twigs of American Yew Taxus canadensis, would produce a decoction to alleivate the pains of rheumatism. It could be either taken internally or the decoction would be sprinkled on very hot stones and the "patient" being closely covered, would let the steam from the decoction warm the rheumatic joints - especially the knees.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"