Winter Solstice Wreath: For Love of Balsam

Recently on a mild sunny day I tipped balsam greens for my wreaths. I breathed in the pungent fragrance with an enthusiasm that can only come from absence. For the last four years I have had to drive up to the mountains of New Mexico to find Colorado fir for greens (also a tree we have here in Maine, although unlike balsam it is not native). 

The scent of balsam to my mind is like no other. Science informs us that the Pinenes from this tree are the most powerful of all conifers. These chemicals act as natural bronchodilators and are also the most effective air purifiers. 

I have been tipping greens since I was a small child. I don’t remember when I first thought about how the trees felt about this shearing. What I do remember is what happened when I cut down a small Christmas tree for our house when my youngest child was around three. As I dragged the tree home I felt deep distress, which led me to stop cutting down trees altogether (to this day I keep a Norfolk Island pine as an indoor tree).

 Cutting edge Forest Scientists like Susan Simard (whose thesis was first published in the prestigious and conservative scientific journal Nature in 1997) writes that trees feel something akin to pain when cut which should be a sobering thought for many, especially those who mindlessly strip whole forests. But, to return to my story, long ago the child in me sensed something and murmured a silent apology as I helped gather balsam boughs with my grandmother, so something about how trees feel was perking in me then. These days I tip with a keen awareness of what I am doing. I use sharp shears, make careful cuts, finish with a grateful thank you.

 I construct my two wreaths on the living room floor using every branch that I can. Nothing goes to waste. Some leftover tips I dry to burn on the top of the woodstove; others become a final covering for bulbs and tender perennials. One wreath stays indoors to scent the house until every needle turns gray and the boughs begin to lose their scent – the other stays outdoors lasting all winter. Each year I decorate my wreaths according to whim. This year they will be dressed in lichens!

Balsam is Maine’s only native fir. In Canada, Balsams can be found growing in some areas. In the US these trees can be found throughout parts of New England, northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan as well as in some areas in New York and elsewhere. I love it that our forests have so many evergreens – black, red, and white Spruce, Hemlock, and Cedar to name a few.  

Balsam is a small to medium-sized tree. On average, the tree attains a height of 40-60 feet and has a trunk diameter of 12-18 inches at maturity. However, in rare cases, the trees can reach a height of 125 feet. Balsams typically have narrow, pyramidal crowns and a broad base, giving the tree a natural conical shape. This tree is so easy to identify! It is the only one that has flat needles instead of the more dramatic bush-like needles of the other firs. Balsam is not a long – lived tree; very few make it to a hundred years. If they don’t fall to the timber harvest as young trees some will develop heartwood or other kinds of rot as a result of pernicious fungi.

 Balsam firs tend to grow best in the eastern portions of their range, where the temperatures are cool and moisture is abundant. According to some sources, optimum growth occurs when winter temperatures range between 0-10 degrees Fahrenheit and summer temperatures range between 60-65 degrees. If the latter is true our summers are becoming too hot for Balsams, and indeed, I have noticed a new disturbing trend of browning branches on some of my trees but I have to wait another season or two before identifying the cause – it might be an insect. Balsams need plenty of water to thrive and last summer’s drought took a toll on some seedlings that sprouted here in the spring.

 Balsam likes silt loams developed from lake deposits, stony loams derived from glacial till, gravelly sands, and peat bogs, with the last two soil types resulting in slower growth. The trees prefer an acidic soil with a pH close to 7. When found in swamps, Balsam often grows in pure stands. Balsam also grows well in association with spruce, (often where better drained soils exist). I am curious to know if there is a mycorrhizal relationship (symbiotic union between fungus and roots of plants and their neighbors)  between the two; I suspect there is. Some sources suggest that Balsams are shade tolerant – My observations do not support shade tolerance once the tree has passed the seedling stage. Interestingly, the trees can be found from sea level to the summit of Mount Washington (6,300 feet high). 

Balsam fir contains both male and female reproductive tissues on the same tree. After fertilization the cones mature during late August and early September and drop scales, bracts, and seeds, leaving just the central axis of the cones remaining on the tree. This central axis looks like a small spire on the top of a branch and may last a long time.

Unlike some other trees, Balsams begin producing seeds when the trees are around 20 years old, probably because they don’t live that long. They begin to produce regular heavy seed crops at intervals of 2-4 years around the age of 30. The seeds are dispersed by wind during autumn or eaten and defecated by small mammals near the parent tree (80 – 200 feet). Only about half the seeds are viable and then only for one year. Germination can occur on virtually any soil as long as there is adequate moisture, and some protection from the sun.

Spruce budworm is a pest that is responsible for defoliating or killing Balsam firs. This adult moth lays eggs on the needles of trees in July. The following May and June, budworm larvae hatch and feed on the foliage. Repeated years of defoliation from this pest can ultimately lead to the death of the trees.  Symptoms include top-kill of the upper portion of the tree and browning of partially eaten needles. 

 Balsam Woolly Adelgid (BWA) is another pest that attacks the stems, twigs and buds of all true firs and can kill trees in as little as three years. “Gouting” is a symptom of BWA attack that appears as a stunting of the terminal growth and distinct swellings around the buds and branch nodes.  Other symptoms are moderately severe dieback of the needles starting at the crown of these very special trees that provide shelter and food for so many animals and birds.I don’t know anyone else beside myself who tips her own Balsam greens these days, but when I was young many folks did. There is something about the process of returning to the forest to gather boughs that puts the gatherer in a special relationship with the trees and the forest that contains them.

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