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February 2017--Balsam Fir

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Balsam Fir


Abies balsamea

 [A-bees   bal-SAM-ee-u]

Family: Pinaceae

 Names:  Christmas tree, Canadian balsam, Balsam tree, American Silver Fir, Balm of Gilead Fir, Canada Turpentine (oil), blister pine, blisters, eastern fir, fir balsam, fir pine, firtree, sapin, silver pine, single spruce,, Balm Of Gilead Fir, Canada Balsam, Fir, abeto (Spanish)

Description: A tall, graceful evergreen tree up to 65 feet high, with a tapering trunk and numerous branches giving the tree an overall shape of a perfect cone.  It has smooth, think brown bark which forms blisters of oleoresin (the balsam) on the trunk and branches, produced from special vesicles beneath the bark.  The tree does not produce a ‘true’ balsam, since it does not contain benzoic or cinnamic acid in its esters.  It is really an oleoresin, being a mixture of resin and essential oil.  The twigs grow perpendicular to the branches.  The needles are flattened, ½ to 1 inch long, dark green, and notched at the top.  It is hardy to zone 2 and is frost tender. It is in leaf all year, in flower in May, and the seeds ripen from September to October. The scented flowers are monoecious and are pollinated by the wind. Grows in low swampy areas, moist woods, near the timberlines in cooler climates.  Native to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, the New England States, Pennsylvania and New York to Virginia and West Virginia.

Cultivation: Prefers a good moist but not water-logged soil. Grows well in heavy clay soils. Very shade tolerant, especially when young, but growth is slower in dense shade. Intolerant of atmospheric pollution. Prefers slightly acid conditions down to a pH of about 5, though the cultivar 'Hudsonia' is more tolerant of alkaline conditions. Prefers growing on a north-facing slope. A shallow-rooted plant, making it vulnerable to high winds. Balsam fir is estimated to tolerate an annual precipitation of 60 to 150cm, an annual temperature range of 37 to 44°F, and a pH of 4.5 to 7.5.  The balsam fir is a fast-growing tree in its native environment. New growth takes place from late May to the end of July. Trees are very cold hardy but are often excited into premature growth in mild winters and this new growth is susceptible to damage by late frosts. Female strobili may be wholly or partially aborted up to 6 to 8 weeks after bud burst by late spring frosts. Pollen dispersal can be reduced by adverse weather.  Trees should be planted into their permanent positions when they are quite small, between 30 and 90cm in height. Larger trees will check badly and hardly put on any growth for several years. This also badly affects root development and wind resistance.  Trees have a thin bark and are therefore susceptible to forest fires. 
                   Plants are strongly outbreeding, self-fertilized seed usually grows poorly. They hybridize freely with other members of this genus. The cones break up on the tree and if seed is required it should be harvested before the cones break up in early autumn.  While the typical species is too large for most gardens, there are some named slow-growing dwarf forms that can be grown. While these will not provide the resin, their leaves can be used medicinally.  

Sow seed in early February in a greenhouse or outdoors in March. Germination is often poor, usually taking about 6 - 8 weeks. Stratification is said to produce a more even germination so it is probably best to sow the seed in a cold frame as soon as it is ripe in the autumn. Stored seeds should be moist stratified 14 - 28 days at 33 - 37°F, though fresh seed may be sown in autumn without stratification, with target seedling densities in the nursery ca 450 - 500/m2, often mulched with sawdust. The seed remains viable for up to 5 years if it is well stored. When large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them on for at least their first winter in pots. Plant them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts. Of slow initial growth, the stock is usually outplanted as 2- to 3-year-old seedlings or 3- to 4-year-old transplants.  Alternatively, if you have sufficient seed, it is possible to sow in an outdoor seedbed. Trees often self-layer in the wild.

Maintain a single leading shoot by cutting out competing shoots flush with the main stem in spring.  Firs may be attached by sap-sucking adelgids, and are prone to dieback and rust caused by fungal infections.  Firs are sensitive to atmospheric pollution.  Although hardy, they may also be damaged by late spring frosts.  Planting in light shade, rather than full sun, minimizes damage.  Leaves and young shoots are collected in spring.  Bark is removed throughout the year.  Resin is tapped form 60-80 year old trees in spring for distillation of oil.  Oleo-resin is collected in summer from blisters on the trunk and used fresh, dried, or distilled for oil.

 History:  Balsam fir resin, often known as Canada balsam, was used for many illnesses by both Native Americans and settlers.  The Penobscot smeared the resin on burns, cuts, and sores, whereas others applied it to the chest and back for colds and chest problems.  The Pillagers used the aromatic needles in their sweat lodges, inhaling smoke from the burning leaves.  Dr. Wooster Beech (1794-1868), founder of the Eclectic healing movement, regarded balsam fir as a stimulant and a laxative when taken internally, an emollient and coolant when used externally.  The leaves, cones, and resin are commonly added to potpourri.  An excellent Christmas tree by virtue of its spicy, delicious fragrance and its ability to hold its needles long after it has been cut.  North American Indians worshipped the balsam for according to the, it is the home of a powerful spirit.  In German mythology, Vogesus, the god of the forest, hides in a majestic fir tree to spread is virtues among the branches.  Father Kneipp created a concentrated balsam extract in the form of a relaxing bubble bath.  He recommended eating pure resin pellets to cure pneumonia and pleurisy. For many northern peoples, the balsam fir is a symbol of eternity, notably for all Christians who associate the celebration of Christmas with it.

Constituents:  balsam fir leaves contain a liquid oleo-resin; young shoots contain some of the resin components, mucilages, vitamins A and C, minerals (calcium, iron, fluorine) and the bark contains minerals, tannins and resin.

Properties: an aromatic, astringent, antiseptic herb with a strong balsam scent.  It stimulates the circulation and acts as a diuretic.  It is also a bactericide, analgesic, antispasmodic, bechic, pectoral, cholagogue, laxative, diuretic, emollient, counterirritant and adrenal tonic.

 Medicinal Uses: The resin obtained from the balsam fir has been used throughout the world and is a very effective antiseptic and healing agent. It is used as a healing and analgesic protective covering for burns, bruises, wounds and sores. It is also used to treat sore nipples and is said to be one of the best curatives for a sore throat. Tea made from the needles has been used to treat colds and asthma.  Canada balsam, an oleoresin gathered from blisters in the bark, has been used to relieve the pain of hemorrhoids, burns and sores and venereal disease.  Balsam fir is an antiseptic and stimulant, and has been used for congestion, chest infections, such as bronchitis, and urinary tract conditions such as cystitis and frequent urination.  It has been used in commercial mixtures to treat coughs and diarrhea.  Externally, balsam fir was rubbed on the chest or applied as a plaster for respiratory infections.  It is also used in bath extracts for rheumatic pain, and as a mouthwash.  The oil is used in ointments and creams, especially in the treatment of hemorrhoids. The buds, resin, and/or sap are used in folk remedies for treating cancers, corns, and warts.  The resin is used internally in propriety mixtures to treat coughs and diarrhea, though taken in excess it is purgative. A warm liquid of the gummy sap was drunk as a treatment for gonorrhea. A tea made from the leaves is antiscorbutic. It is used in the treatment of coughs, colds and fevers.             The adult branches cure muscular spasms and joint pain.  Add a decoction for the bath: 3 oz per 4 cups boiling water for 4 minutes.  Clean the tub well as the essential oils in the balsam will stain.  Breathing in the scent of balsam restores vigor to the lungs and blood.  In the past, many tuberculosis sanatoriums were located in the middle of a pine forest. 

In an herbal tea or a decoction (3 shoots in 1 cup water), it is recommended for pulmonary infections, coughing and constipation.  The inner bark treats difficult urinary infections and gastrointestinal inflammation.  Boil 1 tsp bark in 1 cup water for 5 minutes.  Strain.  Drink 3 cups daily, before each meal.

Balsam Fir Syrup: 2 cups water, 8 oz balsam shoots, 1 cup creamy honey.  In an enamel or 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 Tbsp daily, before each meal.  Excellent for coughs, and for clearing the lungs and intestines.  When made with sugar, the syrup will keep for 9 months.

 Solvent: water, alcohol

Homeopathy: Oil of turpentine used for asthma, backache, irritable bladder, bronchitis, cystitis, dysentery, hemorrhoids, jaundice, congestion of kidneys, pain in ovaries, uremia

 Aromatherapy Uses:

EXTRACTION: the oleoresin is collected by puncturing vesicles in the bark.  An essential oil is produced by steam distillation from the oleoresin, known as Canada balsam or Canada turpentine.  An essential oil is also produced by steam distillation from the leaf or needles, known as fir needle oil.

CHARACTERISTICS: The oleoresin is a thick pale yellow or green honey-like mass, which dries to crystal clear varnish, with a fresh sweet-balsamic, almost fruity odor. The oil is a colorless mobile liquid with a sweet, soft-balsamic, pine-like scent

BLENDS WELL WITH: pine, cedarwood, cypress, sandalwood, juniper, benzoin and other balsams

ACTIONS: antiseptic (genito-urinary, pulmonary), antitussive, astringent, cicatrizant, diuretic, expectorant, purgative, regulatory, sedative (nerve), tonic, vulnerary

CONSTITUENTS: consists almost entirely of monoterpenes, pinene, phellandrene, esters and alcohols.


Skin Care: burns, cuts, hemorrhoids, wounds

Respiratory System: asthma, bronchitis, catarrh, chronic coughs, sore throat

Genito-urinary system: cystitis, genito-urinary infections

Nervous system: depression, nervous tension, stress-related conditions – described as ‘appeasing, sedative, elevating, grounding, opening.’

Other uses: the oil from the oleoresin is used in certain ointments and creams as an antiseptic and treatment for hemorrhoids.  Used in dentistry as an ingredient in root canal sealers.  Also used as a fixative or fragrance component in soaps, detergents, cosmetics and perfumes.  There is some low-level use in food products, alcoholic and soft drinks.  The oleoresin is used as a medium in microscopy and as a cement in glassware 

Toxicity: The oil is generally non-toxic, non-irritant, non-sensitizing 

Other Uses: Native Americans used the resin to seal the seams of their birch-bark canoes and scientists used it to mount specimens on microscope slides.  The oil is used in dentistry in sealing preparations and as a fixative and fragrance in soaps, cosmetics, and perfumes, and as a flavoring in food products, The leaves and young branches are used as a stuffing material for pillows etc - they impart a pleasant scent and also repel moths.  A thread can be made from the roots.  The wood - light, soft, coarse grained, not strong, not very durable. Weighs 24lb per cubic foot. Used mainly for pulp, it is not used much for lumber except in the manufacture of crates etc. The wood is commercially valuable for timber even though it is relatively soft, weak, and perishable. Balsam fir is used in the US for timber and plywood, and is the mainstay of the pulp wood industry in the Northeast. The wood, which is rich in pitch, burns well and can be used as a kindling

Culinary Uses: Inner bark - cooked. It is usually dried, ground into a powder and then used as a thickening in soups etc or mixed with cereals when making bread. Fir bark is a delight to chew in winter or early spring, slightly mucilaginous and sweetish, better raw than cooked. Another report says that it is an emergency food and is only used when all else fails. An aromatic resinous pitch is found in blisters in the bark. When eaten raw it is delicious and chewy. Another report says that the balsam or pitch, in extreme emergency, forms a highly concentrated, though disagreeable, food. An oleoresin from the pitch is used as a flavoring in sweets, baked goods, ice cream and drinks. Tips of young shoots are used as a tea substitute.

Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses
The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils

Wild Medicinal Plants, Anny Schneider, Stackpole Books, 1999; ISBN: 0-8117-2987-7

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