- Balsam Fir
- Canada Balsam
- Christmas Tree
- Fir Balsam
- Fir Pine
- Silver Fir
- Silver Pine
The balsam fir or balsam tree as it is commonly known is a cone shaped tree with a majestic appearance that can reach heights of up to sixty six feet or twenty meters when fully grown. The balsam fir possesses a trunk that is dotted all over with resinous vesicles; the bark is smooth with a grayish color. Dark and evergreen flat shaped needles are borne on grayish green branches; the needles are whitish on the side facing down.
The balsam fir makes for an excellent Christmas tree. Not only for its magnificent shape but also due to its spicy and delicious fragrance as well as the strong retention of the needles on the branches even long after the tree has been cut down.
In the history of peoples on the North American continent, the many uses of the balsam fir goes back much further than the middle of the 19th century when the tree gained ground as a perfect Christmas tree for the mainly European population in North America. The historical use of the balsam fir by the native people of the American continent is much more impressive.
This tree was almost a veritable dispensary for all kinds of herbal medicines for many of the Native American peoples, almost every part of the tree supplied a different kind of herbal medicine and it was universally used by all the native populations in North America. Native people obtained the aromatic resin from the bark and used it as a salve for treating all kinds of cuts, to alleviate sores.
These early Americans also consumed the resin to treat all kinds of colds, to reduce persistent coughs and to deal with asthma. The frontier doctors were also attracted to the resin of the balsam fir and used it extensively during the early stages of colonial expansion on the continent.
Once the benefits of the resin and the balsam fir as a whole became known, it eventually found its way into the general U.S. Pharmacopoeia as an effective herbal medicine. An herbal tea was made from the inner bark of the balsam fir and was used as a remedy for the treatment of chest pains, at the same time, the twigs steeped in water were used as a natural laxative.
Native Americans also used bits of the root and chewed them for treating oral sores and other problems in the mouth. Even the needles of the balsam fir were used by the Native American peoples. The needles were used in sweat baths, which can be considered equivalent to a sauna, handfuls of balsam needles placed on live coals would be used as a scent.
The people taking the sweat baths would inhale the vapors to help in clearing up the congestion in the chest due to colds and persistent coughs. Potpourris in some parts of North America traditionally contained the leaves, the cones and the resin of the balsam fir.
While modern medicine and even folk medicine no longer includes remedies made from the balsam fir as an important medical plant, the sheer esthetic value of this magnificent herb is still not in dispute. For example, at least thirteen percent of all the Christmas trees sold in North America every year are balsam firs – this tree is prized as a Christmas tree in many other places as well.
Whole branches, outer and inner bark, gum.
The traditional uses of the balsam fir was for its antiseptic and stimulatory effects, herbal medications made from the tree have been traditionally in use in North America as well as Europe for disorders such as congestion, to treat all kinds of chest infections including bronchitis.
Balsam fir was also used for the treatment of urinary tract conditions such as frequent urination and disorders like cystitis. Balsam fir based topical medications were also used in treating external problems, these medications were rubbed on the chest or even applied as a herbal plaster for treating respiratory infections of all kinds. The herbal medicine of the present day does not rely on balsam fir as a major natural medication anymore.
In many places around the world, balsam fir bark resin is prized and used mainly for it very effective antiseptic qualities and healing abilities especially for the treatment of topical disorders. Used mainly to treat topical problems of all kinds, the balsam fir is used in the form of a healing and analgesic protective covering to deal with all sorts of burns, to treat bruises and to heal general wounds on the skin.
The resin is believed to be one of the best natural remedies for the treatment of a sore throat and is extensively used in the treatment of sore nipples by many women. Folk medicine makes use of the buds, the resin or the sap for the treatment of corns and warts and even to deal with serious disorders like cancer.
Besides being a potent antiseptic agent, the resin also possesses anti-scorbutic, diaphoretic, tonic and diuretic qualities. The resin is normally consumed in the form of propriety mixtures for the treatment of persistent coughs and to treat digestive disorders like diarrhea, however, it is purgative when taken in excess amounts.
The gummy sap of the balsam fir was made into a warm liquid and traditionally drunk as a natural treatment for the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea. An anti-scorbutic effect is also found in a tea made from the leaves of the balsam fir. The tea made from the leaves of the balsam fir is used in the treatment of persistent coughs, in treating common colds and in bringing down fevers.
To get the best product, the young shoots and the leaves of the balsam fir must be harvested during the spring time and stored for use at a later time. Many different parts of the balsam fir were widely used in the traditional medical systems of various Native North American tribal groups.
Balsam fir resin was also traditionally used as an antiseptic healing agent for external application to all kinds of bites, sores, wounds and injuries on the body. The resin was often inhaled in steam or smoke as a treatment for headaches. The balsam fir resin was also normally consumed to help in treating colds, in alleviating sore throats. Many other disorders were also treated using the resin.
Balsam fir is also the source for what is called balsamic resin or ‘Canada Balsam’, this product is derived from the blisters in the bark during the months of July and August – the resin may also be obtained by boring pockets in the wood of the tree. The chemical nature of this resin is supposed to be turpentine according to one report.
The name “Canada Balsam” given to the resin from the balsam fir is not correct as all balsams contain benzoic and cinnamic acids, these two chemicals are not found in Canada oleoresin and hence the term Canada balsam is a misnomer. Since the oleoresin is not volatile, calling the resin turpentine is a misnomer as well.
The reality is that the resin obtained from the bark consists of 70 – 80% pure plant resin, with volatile oil at 16 – 20%. The volatile oil content of Canada balsam is about 15 – 25%, this resin is mainly employed for caulking purposes and in the manufacture of incense sticks. The resin also has medicinal uses and is employed in dentistry.
The resin is also used in the manufacture of all kinds of glues and gums, in the making of candles and as a cementing substance in microscopes and slides – due to its high refractive index similar to the refractive index of glass. Balsam fir pitch was also previously employed as a material to waterproof the seams of canoes by Native American people.
Nearly 8 – 10 oz of resin can be obtained from one balsam fir. The soaps and perfumery industry also employ the resin as a fixative. The balsamic “Turpentine” is normally obtained from July to August when the blisters are broken using small metal cans that have sharp and pointed lids act as conduits for the collecting resin.
All trees from which resin has been collected are given a period of time to recuperate and recover, this time period is usually one or two years, after this time period has passed, the resin can be collected again.
Other parts of the tree are also used in various manufactures, for example, young twigs and branches as well as the leaves make for good stuffing material for pillows, mattresses and other household items – when used as stuffing, these give off a pleasant scent and act as a repellent to moths and other insects.
On average, balsam fir leaves contain about 0.65% of the essential oil, this can go to 1.4% or even higher and differs on the health of the tree. A chemical analysis carried out on the constituent of the essential oil states that, about 14.6% is formed of the chemical bornyl acetate, while 36.1% is b-pinene, another 11.1% is 3-carene, while 11.1% is formed of the chemical limonene, 6.8% of camphene, and 8.4% of a-pinene.
The ideal way to harvest the oil is to snip off branches from young trees early in the spring – this gives the highest yield of essential oil. Younger trees seem to yield higher quantities of the essential oil, for example, trees that are fifteen years oil yield 70% more of the leaf oil than trees that are 110 years old.
The yield of the essential oil from the leaves is the highest from January to September, while yields tend to be lowest from the months of April to August. The roots of the balsam fir are used in the manufacture of thread and in rope making. The wood of the balsam fir is a light, soft and coarse grained wood; it is not a strong wood and is not as durable like the major hardwoods.
The wood weighs about 24lb per cubic foot on average. The principle use of the wood is in pulp and paper making, due to its softness; it is not used as lumber and is mainly employed in the manufacture of crates and carton boxes. Though not durable, soft and weak, the wood of the balsam fir is still valued commercially as timber.
The timber and plywood industry in the US uses a lot of balsam fir, and the tree is the mainstay wood in the pulp wood industry of the Northeast United States. Balsam fir wood also burns very well as it is rich in pitch, and is preferred as kindling wood in many places.
Habitat and cultivation
The balsam fir is a native plant of North America, and the tree is grown in large commercial plantations for its lumber used mainly in the pulp and plywood industry. During the spring, bark resin is extracted from sixty to eighty year old trees to be used in various manufacturing processes.
The ideal soil to grow the balsam fir is soil high in water content; however, the tree will not tolerate water logged soils. Clay soils are also ideal to grow balsam fir and the trees grown in such soils develop very well. The balsam fir is very tolerant to shade, particularly when it is young, however, the rate of growth tends to be much slower in dense shade and development may be affected.
Atmospheric pollution severely affects balsam fir and stands of such trees can be used to gauge the level of pollution in any place. The balsam fir also prefers slightly acidic conditions in soils, and prefers a pH down to about 4.5; however, the cultivar known as the ‘Hudsonia’ is much more tolerant of alkaline soil conditions and can even grow well on slightly alkaline soils.
The balsam fir also prefers to grow on a slope that faces northwards. The balsam fir is rather vulnerable to very high wind velocities as it is a plant with shallow roots.
The level of precipitation tolerated by the balsam fir is estimated to be in the range of 60 to 150cm annually, while the annual temperature range tolerated by the tree is from 5 to 12°C – the ideal pH range for the balsam fir is from 4.5 to 7.5, a rather broad pH range for any tree.
When grown in its native environment with ideal temperature and pH range, the balsam fir is a very fast growing tree, however, the rate of growth and longetivity is low in countries like Britain, where the tree soon becomes ungainly following just twenty years of growth. The balsam fir grows best in the Perthshire valleys of northern countries such as Scotland.
The balsam fir gives off new growth from late May to the end of July – thus growth is greatest in the summer months. However, the balsam fir does give off new growth even in the midst of winter and the tree is very hardy and tolerates the cold well, the only problem is that the tree can be excited into starting off on a premature growth during mild winters and this new growth is very vulnerable to damage from late frosts as winter deepens.
The late spring frosts can wreck a great deal of damage on budded female strobili and these strobili may be partially or completely aborted even six to eight weeks after the buds have burst. Adverse weather can lower total rate of pollen dispersed, since wind is the primary agent of dispersal of balsam fir.
In plantations and gardens, the balsam fir trees should ideally be planted in the permanent positions they will occupy while they are still small plantlets, this ideal size of saplings is when they are between 30 and 90cm tall.
Planting saplings larger than these will not be very wise as large trees check badly and will hardly have any new growth for several years at a stretch – taking far longer to establish themselves in the soil. Larger saplings also have a problem with developing firm roots and face greater wind resistance – factors that are avoided when smaller saplings are planted.
Balsam fir trees are vulnerable to forest fires as they have a thin bark. The balsam fir is closely related to another species called A. fraseri – both have similar morphology and characteristics. Balsam fir plants are exogamous species and the trees are strongly out breeding, artificially self fertilized seeds usually show no growth or grow poorly with impaired development.
However, balsam fir forms hybrids very freely with many other members of the genus and hybrids are common in the wild. If the seeds need to be collected, they must be done before the cones break up on the tree early in the autumn every year.
Balsam fir is not ideal for the typical garden, as the most common variety of tree is far too large for the majority of gardens, however, some slow growing dwarf varieties can be grown even in small home gardens. The leaves of these dwarf species can be used in herbal medicines, though these will not give off resin in sufficient amounts. Crushed leaves of the balsam fir are strongly aromatic and give off a strong fragrance.
Balsam fir is propagated form seed which are sown early in a greenhouse in February or sown out of doors during early spring in the month of March. The rate of germination of the seeds is often very poor, and seeds usually take from six to eight weeks to germinate even in the most favorable conditions.
A more even rate of germination is said to be occur if the seeds are subjected to stratification, therefore it is probably best to sow seeds in a cold frame as soon as they turn ripe during the autumn months rather than wait for the spring. Balsam fir seeds that have been under storage should ideally be moist stratified for periods of 14 to 28 days at a temperature of 1 – 5°C to promote an increased germination rate.
The freshly collected seeds may be sown during the autumn itself without stratification in most cases; the target seedling density for freshly obtained seeds in the nursery is about 450 – 500/m² – the seed bed need to be mulched with sawdust from time to time. If they are stored in ideal conditions, seeds often remain viable for up to five years.
Once the seeds have germinated and seedlings turn large enough to handle by hand, the seedlings can be pricked out and separated into individual pots – these can then be grown in pots the first winter following germination. Once the saplings mature, the plants can be placed out into their permanent positions late during the spring or early in the summer months, following the passage of the last of the expected frosts in the year.
Planting seedlings out of doors is a gradual process as balsam fir seedlings grow slowly in the initial growth phase, out planting of two to three year old seedlings is common, out planting of three to four year old transplants is also common. An outdoor seedbed can also be used as an alternative, but only if the supply of seeds is sufficient to offset the high mortality rates of seeds sown under natural conditions.
A single research report states that the best way to grow seedlings is under a shade at a population density of approximately 550 plants per square meter, however, another research report states that seedlings are best grown in a site with good exposure to sunlight.
Seeds of the balsam fir are also normally layered under natural conditions; this may be another means by which the numbers of named varieties can be increased artificially in the cultivation of balsam fir carried out in plantations.
Balsam fir is often made into an herbal tea or in an herbal decoction prepared by using three shoots of the balsam fir and boiling them in a single cup of water – about 250 ml. Tea made from balsam shoots are suggested for the treatment of persistent coughs, to treat all kinds of pulmonary infections and to deal with constipation and related disorders.
Balsam fir is also used to make an herbal decoction for the bath: To prepare this, use 3 oz – 100 g of cut balsam fir branches for every 4 cups – 1 liter of water, boil the water for 4 minutes at a stretch.
An herbal decoction made from the mature branches will cure muscular spasms and soothe joint pain. As the essential oils contained in the balsam fir can stain the bath, both the bath and the saucepan used to prepare the decoction must be cleaned well following the treatment.
Problems like gastrointestinal inflammation and problematic urinary infections are easily cured by an herbal decoction prepared from the inner bark of the balsam fir. To prepare this herbal remedy, use 250 ml of water to boil 5 g of the inner bark for 5 minutes. Carefully strain the decoction. Drink three cups or 750 ml of this inner bark tea daily, once before every meal to get results.
A product called “Indian glue” made from balsam gum can be applied undiluted to external injuries such as an abscess, on an open wound and even on a wart to bring the skin back into shape. Once the balsam gum is applied to an area, the site can be covered up with a bandage to prevent the gum from sticking to the clothes.
The dressing on the site must be changed at least two times in a 24 hour period. This treatment can be continued for up to a week and is very effective particularly in the case of a plantar wart on the skin.
The gum of balsam is also employed in the treatment of a toothache if the cause of the ache is an abscess in the root of the teeth. Balsam resin is also made into a combination medicinal oil, by mixing 20% of the liquid resin with 80% olive oil, this oil can be used as a topical treatment to calms joint and muscular pain, it is also used topically for treating bacterial infections on the skin – people affected by hemorrhoids can also use the oil as a topical remedy.
The essential oil of balsam fir can also be used in the bath; it must first be diluted in some alcohol or in milk – the ratio being about 15 drops of the oil in one fourths of a cup or 60 ml alcohol or milk. Dilute essential oil to 10 per cent in any vegetable oil for use in massages and as rubbing oil.
The essential oil of the balsam fir can also be steam inhaled or used indirectly through an essential oil diffuser, place no more than twenty drops of the essential oil at a time in about four cups or a liter of hot water. This solution is ideal for the treatment of all kinds of nasal and pulmonary congestion disorders when it is steam inhaled.
The encapsulated balsam gum can also be purchased in the market, these capsules contain the gum and are fully natural and meant for therapeutic purposes. The capsules are meant to help a person give up smoking, they also help in cleaning or clearing up the lungs, they help in relieving constipation and can greatly facilitate sleep.
A related tree commonly called the honeydew or spruce produces delicious pectoral nectar called dark honey; this natural product is unique to the Vosges region of France.
Balsam fir syrup
- 2 cups (500 ml) water
- 8 oz (250 g) balsam shoots
- 1 cup (250 ml) creamy honey
- 1 tinted glass bottle
In an enamel and stainless-steel covered saucepan, simmer the balsam shoots for 15 minutes. Let stand for 1 hour. Strain. Add the honey and cook at low heat for 15 minutes. Let cool and bottle. Store in the refrigerator. Consume pure or diluted in water, within 3 months, at a rate of 1 T (15 mI) daily, before each meal. Excellent for coughs, and for clearing the lungs and intestines.
Note: When made with sugar, the syrup will keep for 9 months.
- From Richard Austin – Jan-20-2013
- My granny when she was alive told me all about balsam. I usually gather the bark during flu season, early November. I boil the bark and strain it and take a tablespoon daily, that keeps me from the cold and flu, it works great. I’m not saying exactly how I make the medicine.