Scotch Pine

Scotch Pine

Pinus sylvestris L.

Description:

Scotch Pine

Scotch or Scots pine is an introduced species which has been widely planted for the purpose of producing Christmas trees. It is an extremely hardy species which is adaptable to a wide variety of soils and sites. As a Christmas tree, it is known for its dark green foliage and stiff branches which are well suited for decorating with both light and heavy ornaments. It has excellent needle retention characteristics and holds up well throughout harvest, shipping and display.

The needles of Scotch pine are produced in bundles of two. They are variable in length, ranging from slightly over 1-inch for some varieties to nearly 3-inches for others. Color is likewise variable with bright green characteristic of a few varieties to dark green to bluish tones more prominent in others. The undersides of Scotch pine needles are characterized by several prominent rows of white appearing stomatal openings.

The bark of upper branches on larger, more mature trees displays a prominent reddish-orange color which is very distinctive and attractive. Large amounts of cones are likewise produced which often persist on the tree from one year to the next. Like most pines two growing seasons are required to produce mature cones. On excellent sites within its native range mature trees may reach a trunk diameter of 30 inches or more and individual trees may exceed 125 feet in height.

Range:

Scotch pine is native to Europe and Asia. From the British isles and Scandinavian peninsulas through central Europe south to the Mediterranean and east through eastern Siberia, Scotch pine can be found at varying elevations.Scotch pine was introduced to North America by European settlers and has long been cultivated, especially in the eastern United States and Canada. It is adaptable to a wide variety of sites and accordingly, has been widely planted for both Christmas tree and ornamental purposes. Although plantations have been established in the United States for the purpose of producing forest products, the species does not perform as well as in its native habitat.

Propagation:

Scotch pine is reproduced from seed. More than thirty five different seed sources or varieties are commercially recognized. Seed is obtained by international collectors and marketed through reputable seed dealers. A few seed orchards have been established in the United States from which seed is locally collected. For Christmas tree production purposes seed is usually sown in the spring and the resulting seedlings are allowed to grow for two years in the nursery bed before they are lifted and sold to Christmas tree producers. There has been some research by university personnel to identify and produce genetically improved planting stock, although these efforts have not been totally successful.

Uses:

In Europe and throughout several countries in Asia, Scotch pine is an important species of high economic value. Forest stands containing Scotch pine are managed to produce pulpwood, poles, and sawlogs from which dimension and finish lumber is produced. Logs from trees of large diameters are processed into veneer and used in manufacturing plywood. The species is also valued as an ornamental and landscape plant and has been widely planted in parks and gardens.

As a Christmas tree Scotch pine is probably the most commonly used species in the United States. Because of its ease of planting, generally high planting survival and favorable response to plantation culture it has been widely planted throughout much of the eastern United States and Canada. For several years it was the favorite species of large eastern wholesale growers because of its excellent harvesting and shipping qualities. It is also a preferred species for many choose and cut growers in much of the eastern and central United States.

When established in plantations usually 6 to 8 years are required to produce a 7 to 8 foot tree. The tree requires annual shearing, usually beginning the second or third year following planting and continuing on through the year of harvest. Scotch pine is host to a number of insect and disease problems, and continued protection from foliage and stem damaging agents is necessary. The species is not demanding with respect to fertility or moisture and supplemental fertilization or irrigation is not considered necessary.

As a Christmas tree Scotch pine is known for its excellent needle retention and good keepability. It resists drying and if permitted to become dry does not drop its needles. When displayed in a water filled container it will remain fresh for the normal 3 to 4 week Christmas season. Like all natural trees it is readily recyclable and has many different uses following the Christmas holidays.

 

Prepared by Dr. Melvin R. Koelling, Michigan State University
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Noble Fir

Abies procera Rehd.

Description:

Noble Fir

In the wild, the trees are tall, beautifully symmetrical and grow to over 200 feet in height. The bark is smooth with resin blisters when young and changes to brownish-gray plates with age.

The needles are roughly 4-sided (similar to spruce), over 1 inch long, bluish-green but appearing silver because of 2 white rows of stomata on the underside and 1-2 rows on the upper surface. The needles are generally twisted upward so that the lower surface of branches are exposed.

The pollen cones are reddish and the seed cones are large (often over 5 inches long), heavy cones concentrated in the tree tops. They are erect and the cones scales are nearly concealed by shaggy-edged, sharp pointed bracts. The cones dissipate in the fall to release their seeds.

The original Latin name Abies nobilis had to be changed when it was discovered another tree already had been given this name. However, the common name has persisted because of the magnificent proportions of the tree and the large, heavy cones.

Range:

Nobles are native to the Siskiyou Mountains of northern California and the Cascade and Coastal ranges of Oregon and Washington. It closely resembles the California red fir (Abies magnifica var. magnifica), commonly used as an uncultured tree called “silver tips” in the California fresh tree market, and the shasta fir (Abies magnifica var. shastensis) that is grown in some Pacific Northwest Christmas tree plantations.

It grows in middle- to upper-elevation coniferous forests and is often associated with Abies amabilis (or “silver fir”) and other conifers. The best stands are found in moist, middle elevation areas with deep, rich soils. Middle-elevation stands are usually more open than low-elevation forests and occur on poorer, thinner, rockier soils in areas more frequently disturbed by wind, snow and sometimes fire.

Propagation:

Past research studies have identified certain geographic areas that appear to produce more higher grade Christmas trees than others. Consequently the majority of seed is picked from these regions.

Seedlings are routinely germinated both in bare root and container nurseries. They are then transplanted for one to two years before being sold as Christmas tree or timber stock.

Uses:

Long considered an excellent Christmas tree because of its beauty, stiff branches and long keepability, the species is growing in popularity (between 25% and 30% of the fresh tree market in the Pacific Northwest). It is also widely used in the greenery business to make wreaths, door swags, garland and other Christmas products.

Its lumber is sometimes marketed as “Oregon larch” – possibly after the Larch Mountains because they were covered with towering stands of noble fir.

The wood is moderately strong and light weight. It is valued for its light color and uniform straight grain. The earlywood (spring wood) is creamy white to light brown and the latewood (summer wood) gradually changes to reddish brown or lavender tinged. The heartwood is indistinct.

The wood is easy to work. Its warm, light color and straight grain makes ideal interior finish material for siding, paneling and doors. It is often sold separately for appearance applications and as Hem-Fir (Hemlock-Fir) for construction applications.

Folklore:

The R.A.F. Mosquito planes of World War II were built with noble fir frames.

 

Prepared by Dennis Tompkins, Editor of the “American Christmas Tree Journal”
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Eastern White Pine

Pinus strobus L.

Description:

Eastern White Pine

Beginning with the British colonists, eastern white pine (or white pine) has proven to be one of the most important and most desirable species of North America. It is a truly magnificent tree attaining a height of 80 feet or more at maturity with a diameter of two to three feet. White pine is considered to be the largest pine in the United States. In colonial times, white pines above 24 inches in diameter were reserved for England to be used as ships masts. These trees were identified by blazing a broad arrow on the trunk. Because of the colonists general dislike of British rule, this “broad arrow” policy was one more source of friction between the two. Until about 1890, white pine was considered the species of choice for most commercial uses. It is the state tree of Maine and Michigan.

Leaves (needles) are soft, flexible and bluish-green to silver green in color and are regularly arranged in bundles of five. Needles are 2 1/2-5 inches long and are usually shed at the end of the second growing season. Both male and female flowers (strobili) occur on the same tree, with pollination occurring in spring. Cones are 4-8 inches in length, usually slightly curved and mature at the end of the second season. Cone scales are rather thin and never have prickles. Cones also have exudations of a fragrant gummy resin.

Bark on young trunks and branches is smooth and tends to be greenish-brown in color. On older trunks, the bark becomes dark gray and shallowly fissured. Limbs tend to persist, particularly on trees grown without severe competition.

White pine is intermediate in shade tolerance and is commonly associated with eastern hemlock and various northern hardwoods. It is found on many different sites including dry rocky ridges and wet sphagnum bogs, but best development is on moist sandy loam soils. Extensive logging has destroyed most of the original pine forests, but the species is aggressive in reproducing itself and may be found throughout its original range. Due to its desirability and relative ease of nursery production it has also been a major species for reforestation in the northeastern United States and Canada.

White pine is susceptible to white pine blister rust disease, which has alternate hosts of wild currants and gooseberries (Ribes). White pine weevil is the major insect pest, and one which deforms trees by killing the terminal shoots. White pine appears to be more sensitive to pollutants such as, ozone, fluorides and sulfur dioxide than are other species.

For Christmas trees, sheared trees are preferred, although some people feel shearing results in trees too dense for larger ornaments. Needle retention is good to excellent. White pine has very little aroma, but, conversely, is reported to result in fewer allergic reactions than do some of the more aromatic species. To produce a 6-foot tree requires 6-8 years on good sites.

Range:

White pine has a broad geographic range, growing from Newfoundland to Manitoba through the northern United States to northern and eastern Ohio and then southward along the Appalachian Mountains to northern Georgia and South Carolina. It can be found from sea level in its northern range to 5000 feet in the Appalachian Mountains.

Propagation:

Most propagation is by seed, although the species grafts quite easily. Considerable variation in rooting ability has been observed. About 70 cultivars have been developed for commercial use.

Uses:

White pine has historically been one of the most valuable lumber trees. It has soft, light wood which warps and checks less than many other species. The wood is adapted to a variety of uses to include cabinets, interior finish, and carving. Early native-Americans used the inner bark as food, with colonists later using the inner bark as an ingredient in cough remedies.

Seeds are eaten by birds such as red crossbills and chickadees. Rabbits may eat the bark of young trees as may porcupines.

 

Prepared by Dr. Craig R. McKinley, North Carolina State University
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Fraser Fir

Abies fraseri (Pursh) Poir.

Common Characteristics:

The Fraser fir branches turn slightly upward. They have good form and needle-retention. They are dark blue-green in color. They have a pleasant scent, and excellent shipping characteristics as well.

Description:

In many respects, Fraser fir and balsam fir are quite similar, although the geographic ranges of the two species do not overlap. Some scientists even suggest that because of the many similarities, the two species were once a single species which has since evolved into the present-day forms.
Fraser fir was named for John Fraser (1750-1811), a Scot botanist who explored the southern Appalachian Mountains in the late 18th century. The species is sometimes called Southern balsam or Southern balsam fir. Locally Fraser fir is known as “She balsam” because of the resin filled blisters on the tree’s trunk. Red spruce, often associated with Fraser fir, is called “He balsam” and lacks the distinctive blisters.

Fraser fir is a uniformly pyramid-shaped tree which reaches a maximum height of about 80 feet and a diameter of 1-1.5 feet. Strong branches are turned slightly upward which gives the tree a compact appearance.

Leaves (needles) are flattened, dark-green with a medial groove on the upper side and two broad silvery-white bands on the lower surface. These bands consist of several rows of stomata (pores). Leaves are 1/2 to one inch long, have a broad circular base, and are usually dark green on the upper surface and lighter on the lower surface. On lower branches, leaves are two-ranked (occurring in two opposite rows). On upper twigs, leaves tend to curl upward forming a more “U-shaped” appearance.

Fraser fir is monecious meaning that both male and female flowers (strobili) occur on the same tree. Flowers are receptive in May to June depending on elevation and other environmental conditions. The species is wind pollinated, and cones mature in a single season. At maturity, cones are 2-2 1/2 inches long with bracts longer than the scales and appearing reflexed (bent over). The presence of these visible cone bracts is a distinguishing feature of Fraser fir as compared to balsam fir. Upon ripening in September to November, cones fall apart leaving an erect central core. Red squirrels are the primary consumers of seeds.

Bark is usually gray or gray-brown, thin, smooth with numerous resin blisters on young trees. As trees become older, the bark tends to develop into thin, papery scales.

Fraser fir is intermediate in shade tolerance and is usually found on fertile, rocky to sandy soils which are acidic. Natural associates are red spruce, beech and yellow birch. Rhododendrons also are found in this ecosystem, and add significant beauty during their flowering season.

The most damaging natural enemy is the balsam woolly adelgid (formerly called an aphid) which is an imported, wingless insect. Phytophthora root disease attacks Fraser fir, but is most harmful at lower elevations. Some scientists also point to air pollution as a contributor to the decline of many natural red spruce-Fraser fir stands.

The combination of form, needle retention, dark blue-green color, pleasant scent and excellent shipping characteristics has led to Fraser fir being a most popular Christmas tree species. North Carolina produces the majority of Fraser fir Christmas trees. It requires from 7 to 10 years in the field to produce a 6-7 feet tree.

Range:

Fraser fir has a somewhat restricted range. It grows naturally only at elevations above 4,500 feet in the Southern Appalachian Mountains from southwest Virginia, through western North Carolina, and into eastern Tennessee. A number of stands occur in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Its highest native habitat is Mt. Mitchell, North Carolina (6,684 feet) which is the highest U.S. point east of the Mississippi River. A variety of balsam fir, phanerolepis, occurs in the Northeast United States and Canada and as far south as West Virginia and Virginia (38 degees north latitude). This variety is best described as an intermediate form between balsam fir and Fraser fir and may represent a remnant of a once continuous range of the two species.

Propagation:

Most propagation is by seeds although propagation by cuttings, and grafting has also been used for special purposes. Propagation via tissue culture has been attempted but not on a large scale.

Uses:

Principal uses are generally the same as for balsam fir, although Fraser fir has been used less for timber because of the difficult terrain on which it grows. The wood is soft and brittle and may be used for pulpwood, light frame construction, interior knotty paneling, and crates. Fraser fir boughs have often been used for “pine pillows” and bed stuffing.

Prepared by Dr. Craig R. McKinley, North Carolina State University

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Grand Fir

Abies grandis (Dougl. ex D. Don) Lindl.

Description:

Grand Fir

The grand fir is one of the tallest firs, reaching heights of 300 feet. It is easily distinguished from other Pacific Northwest firs by its sprays of lustrous needles in two distinct rows. They are usually horizontally spread so that both the upper and lower sides of the branches are clearly visible. The needles are 1 to 1 1/2 inches long with glossy dark green tops and two highly visible white lines of stomata on the undersides.

The pollen strobili are yellowish and the cones are yellowish-green to green, cylindrical, erect, 2 to 4 inches long, occur high in the crowns and dissipate in the fall to release their seeds.

The bark is grayish-brown, usually with white mottles, smooth with resin blisters when young, becoming rigid and then scaly with age. Like most other true firs, it is thinned barked and therefore very sensitive to fire. Control of fires in the drier southern parts of the northwest has allowed a widespread increase of grand fir over the last 50 years.

Range:

It grows from British Columbia inland to Montana and south into northern California. It grows in dry to moist coniferous forests in rain shadow areas, often in association with Douglas-fir. It commonly ranges from river flats to fairly dry slopes from low to middle elevations.

Propagation:

Past research has identified the “Panhandle” area of Idaho as a desirable seed source. Most seedlings produced for Christmas tree growers originate from this region. It is germinated from seed in both greenhouses and bare root nurseries and usually transplanted in a nursery for one to two years.

Uses:

It is a minor Christmas tree species throughout Washington and Oregon, but a major species in the inland states of Idaho and Montana. It produces a beautiful, thick foliaged tree when sheared and is known for its strong fragrance. In most areas, it will produce a marketable tree in eight to ten years.

Grand fir and white fir are softwoods with characteristics so similar that they are used interchangeably. They are moderately strong and light weight. Earlywood is creamy white to light brown while the latewood gradually changes to reddish brown or a lavender tinge. The heartwood is indistinct.

The wood is relatively straight grained and easy to work. It is most often sold as White Wood, Hem-Fir (Hemlock-Fir) or ES-AF-LP (includes Engelmann spruce, alpine fir and lodgepole pine) for construction. It is also used for boxes, decoration and utility. It has excellent resistance to splitting in nailing and screwing and has outstanding gluing qualities.

Folklore:

Northwest native Americans have a history of making uses of grand fir foliage and branches. Kwakwaka’wakw shamans wove its branches into headdresses and costumes and used the branches for scrubbing individuals in purification rites. The Hesquiat tribes used its branches as incense and decorative clothing for wolf dancers.

It was occasionally used as a fuel. Some interior tribes such as the Okanogan, also made canoes from its bark. Pitch was applied to bows for a secure grip and rubbed on paddles and scorched for a good finish. A brown dye from its bark was used in making baskets by the Straits Salish tribe, along with a pink dye made by mixing the brown dye with red ochre. Knots were shaped, steamed and carved into halibut hooks by several coastal tribes.

Grand fir bark, sometimes mixed with stinging nettles, was boiled and the concoction used for bathing and as a general tonic. The Lushoot tribe boiled needles to make a medicinal tea for colds. The Ditidaht sometimes brought boughs inside as a air freshener and burned them as an incense and to make a purifying smoke to ward off illnesses. These people also crushed and mixed the bark of grand fir, red alder and western hemlock and made an infusion that was rank for internal injuries. The Hesquiat mixed the pitch of young trees with oil and rubbed it on the scalp as a deodorant and to prevent balding.

 

Prepared by Dennis Tompkins, Editor of the “American Christmas Tree Journal”
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Colorado Blue Spruce

Picea pungens Engelm.

Description:

Colorado Blue Spruce

Colorado blue spruce, or blue spruce, is an attractive tree often used for Christmas trees or as ornamentals, particularly in the eastern United States and Europe. It is the official state tree of both Colorado and Utah. The species generally reaches a height of 65-115 feet at maturity with a diameter of 2-3 feet. It has a narrow, pyramidal shape and cone-shaped crown. As trees become older, they often take on a more irregular appearance. While blue spruce grows relatively slowly, it is long-lived and may reach ages of 600-800 years.

Leaves (needles) are 1-1 1/2 inches long on lower branches but somewhat shorter on upper branches. They are 4-sided and have a very sharp point on the end. It is this point which gives the species its name “pungens”, from the Latin word for sharp as in puncture wound. Needles are generally dull bluish-gray to silvery blue and emit a resinous odor when crushed. Some trees have a more distinct bluish-white or silvery-white foliage. The cultivated variety ‘glauca’ is noted for this type of coloration. Nursery managers also select for “shiners” which demonstrate this very desirable characteristic. Needles occur on small peg-like structures on the twig called sterigmata. The sterigmata persist on the twigs after needles have fallen, which is usually after the third or fourth year.

Both male and female flowers (strobili) occur in the same tree, although in different locations. Pollination occurs in late spring and cones mature in one season. In the fall, cones are 2-4 inches long and turn chestnut brown with stiff, flattened scales. Cones generally persist on the tree for one to two years after seed fall.

The bark is thin becoming moderately thick with age. It is somewhat pale gray in small flattened scales when young, then turns reddish brown and furrowed with age.

Blue spruce is moderately shade tolerant and grows best in deep, rich, gravely soils, often along stream banks and other sites with high moisture levels. It usually does not occur in large stands but is found in small groves or in association with Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce or ponderosa pine. A deep penetrating root system makes the species resistant to being blown over.

Major pests include the western spruce dwarf mistletoe, spruce bark beetle, and spruce budworm. Trees infected with mistletoe typically develop abnormal masses of branches called “witches brooms”. With severe infestations, trees may be killed.

Blue spruce is finding increasing popularity as a Christmas tree as a result of its symmetrical form and attractive blue foliage. The species has an excellent natural shape and requires little shearing. Additionally, needle retention is among the best for the spruces. Its popularity as an ornamental leads many consumers to use blue spruce as a living Christmas tree, to be planted after the holiday season.

Range:

Blue spruce occurs naturally from western Wyoming and eastern Idaho southward through central Colorado and Central Utah. The southern limits are New Mexico and Arizona. It occurs at elevations of 6,000 to 11,000 feet; generally at higher elevations in the more southern areas.

Propagation:

Most propagation is by seed but blue spruce can be grafted or grown from rooted cuttings. Vegetative propagation is more often used to perpetuate the rarer, more desirable forms of the species. Picea abies or Picea pungens are preferred rootstock for grafting.

Over 70 cultivated varieties have been named.

Uses:

The wood is light to pale brown in color and is lightweight, soft, and brittle. The lack of natural pruning leads to boards often being full of knots. Blue spruce grows in relatively inaccessible locations leading to its not being commercially important as a timber species. The wood is suitable, however, for posts, poles, and fuel.

Blue spruce has limited value to wildlife but does provide cover and seeds for squirrels, rodents and some birds.

In the western United States, the species has found some use in shelterbelts.

 

Prepared by Dr. Craig R. McKinley, North Carolina State University
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Concolor Fir (White Fir)

Abies concolor (Gord. and Glend.) Hildebr.

Description:

Concolor Fir

White fir, also commonly called concolor fir, is native to the western United States and may reach sizes of 130-150 ft. in height and 3 to 4 ft. in diameter. The oldest white firs may occasionally reach 350 years of age. It produces a spire-like crown with a straight trunk.

On older trees, the lower one-half to one-third of the crown is often free of branches.

Leaves (needles) are small and narrow and occur in rows. On upper branches, needles tend to be thicker and more curved than those on lower branches. Needles are usually 1/2 to 1 1/2 inch long, pointed or notched at the tip, bluish-green when young turning dull green with age. Typically, they are flat, without stalks.

The bark on younger trees is thin, smooth, gray with numerous resin-bearing pockets. Older bark is thicker, reddish-brown to light gray and broken into irregular, flattened scales.

Both male and female flowers (strobili) are found on the same tree. Pollination occurs in the spring and cones mature in one season. Cones are barrel-shaped, about 3 to 6 inches long, and mature in early fall. Cones are upright and generally disintegrate after seeds are shed. Good seed crops occur at 2- to 4-year intervals.

White fir is tolerant of a considerable amount of shade. Its best growth is on moist loamy soils, but may often be found on dry, thin soils. The species seldom occurs in pure stands but grows in association with numerous other species depending on location and elevation. White fir is commonly found with Douglas-fir, sugar pine, ponderosa pine, and red fir.

White fir is severely damaged by mistletoe. Leaves of white fir are often attacked by spruce budworm and Douglas-fir tussock moth. Bark beetles may also be a serious problem in some areas.

As a Christmas tree, white fir has good foliage color, a pleasing natural shape and aroma, and good needle retention.

Range:

White fir has one of the largest ranges of any of the commercial western firs. It can be found from the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and New Mexico to the Coast Range in California and Oregon. White fir occurs from 6000 ft. to 11,000 ft. in elevation in the Rocky Mountains and as low as 2300 ft. near the Pacific Coast. Differences in habitat as well as growth requirements and morphological characteristics have led some authors to propose the separation of white fir into two taxonomic varieties, one in the Rocky Mountains and the other in the western part of the species’ range.

Propagation:

Most propagation is by seed, although both rooting and grafting has been successful. Most vegetative propagation has been to increase the number of rarer forms. Several cultivars have been propagated including a weeping white fir sold under the name of Abies concolor `Pendula’.

Uses:

White fir is an excellent ornamental tree and is widely planted in the eastern United States and Canada. It is often used in cemeteries as a contrast to darker-colored evergreens.

The wood of white fir is light, soft and coarse-grained. Its primary uses have been for pulpwood, lumber, furniture, and boxes and crates. Because the wood lacks a distinctive odor, it was used in earlier times for tubs in which to store butter.

White fir is important to many species of wildlife. Blacktail and mule deer feed on the buds and leaves during the winter, porcupines eat the bark, and Douglas pine squirrels are fond of the seeds. Grouse may also eat seeds after they fall from the cones.

 

Prepared by Dr. Craig R. McKinley, North Carolina State University
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Balsam Fir

Abies balsamea (L.) Miller

Description:

Balsam Fir

First described in 1768, balsam fir is a medium-sized tree generally reaching 40-60 feet in height and 1-1 1/2 feet in diameter. It exhibits a relatively dense, dark-green, pyramidal crown with a slender spire-like tip. The scientific name “balsamea” is an ancient word for the balsam tree, so named because of the many resinous blisters found in the bark. Balsam fir and Fraser fir have many similar characteristics, although geographic ranges of the two species do not overlap.

On lower branches needles generally occur as two-ranked (two rows along sides of the branch), 3/4 – 1 1/2 inches long, spreading and not crowded. On older branches, the needles tend to be shorter and curved upward so as to cover the upper sides of the twigs. Individual needles are somewhat flat and may be blunt or notched at the end. Needles have a broad circular base and are usually dark green on the upper surface, lighter on the lower surface. Two silvery bands of stomata (pores) are found on the lower surface.

Balsam fir has both male and female flowers (or strobili) on the same tree. Flowers are receptive in late May to early June. The species is wind pollinated, and cones mature in a single season. At maturity, cones are 2 to 3 1/2 inches long with bracts shorter than scales. The presence of these short cone bracts is a distinguishing feature when balsam fir is compared Fraser fir. Upon ripening in September to November, cones fall apart leaving an erect central core.

Balsam fir bark is thin, ash-gray, and smooth except for numerous blisters on young trees. These blisters contain a sticky, fragrant, liquid resin. Thus, the species has been sometimes referred to as “blister pine”. Upon maturity, bark may become up to 1/2 inch thick, red-brown and broken into thin scales.

The species thrives in cooler climates and demands abundant soil moisture and a humid atmosphere. It is generally found in the Canadian and Hudsonian zones from sea level to about 5,000 feet in elevation. Growth is best on well-drained, sandy loam soils that are somewhat acid. The species is tolerant of shade and may reach 150-200 years of age. Pure stands may be found in swamps, but balsam fir often occurs with white spruce, black spruce and aspen on upland sites.

Chief enemies are the spruce budworm and balsam woolly adelgid (formerly called an aphid), heart-rot fungi, and fire. A shallow root system also renders the trees vulnerable to high winds and heavy spring snow storms.

As a Christmas tree, balsam fir has several desirable properties. It has a dark-green appearance, long-lasting needles, and attractive form. It also retains its pleasing fragrance. Nine to ten years in the field are required to produce a 6-7 foot tree.

Range:

Abies balsamea occurs naturally from northern Alberta to Labrador, southward to Pennsylvania. This geographical distribution is larger than for any other North American fir species. A variety of balsam fir, phanerolepis, occurs as far south as West Virginia and Virginia (38 degrees north latitude). This variety is best described as an intermediate form between balsam fir and Fraser fir although classified with balsam fir.

Propagation:

Most propagation is by seeds, although natural layering may occur from lower branches in contact with moist soil. A few selected cultivated forms are commercially propagated by cuttings, and grafting has also been used for special purposes. Propagation via tissue culture has been attempted but not on a large scale.

Uses:

The wood is soft and brittle and has been used primarily for pulpwood. The wood is also used for light frame construction, interior knotty paneling, and crates. Wood resin in the bark blisters is the source of Canada balsam used for making of microscope slides. Resin was sold in stores as a confection prior to the advent of chewing gum, and resinous fir knots were once used as torches. A balm of balsam fir resin was used in Civil War as an external application to the injuries of combat. Balsam fir boughs are often used for stuffing “pine pillows”, with the aromatic foliage serving as a deodorant.

Moose and whitetail deer browse the foliage, while chickadees, nutcrackers, squirrels and porcupines eat the seeds. The spruce grouse uses fir forests for cover and obtains food from the needles.

 

Prepared by Dr. Craig R. McKinley, North Carolina State University