Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) is prevalent throughout much of Canada, stretching from Newfoundland to Alberta. This beautiful conifer has many uses as a traditional medicine, emergency food, and in bushcraft. It’s also an important plant for wildlife who rely on it for food and shelter. Below, I talk about how to identify this plant and explore some of its uses.
Identifying Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea)
Balsam fir is a medium height (40-60 foot) conifer that loves cold winters and moist forests. It is symmetrical and steeple-shaped, making it a popular choice for Christmas tree farmers.
You’ll often find balsam fir growing alongside yellow birch, red maple, black spruce, and red spruce. It’s become more popular since early settlement because the practice of clear-cutting by commercial forestry removes competing species. The tree has a short lifespan, about 80 – 100 years.
Balsam fir has flattish needles that are 5/8 – 1.5 inches in length. The needles are green on the upper side. On the lower side, they are green with two white lines (these are the stomata). If you look closely, you’ll see that the needles have notched ends.
Balsam fir begins to produce cones at age 15. The cones are 1-3 inches in length and stand erect. They are deep purple or green in colour and become brown as they age.
Some years balsam fir produces a lot of cones and other years hardly any. Abundant production happens every 2-4 years.
The bark of young trees is smooth. As the tree ages, the bark becomes more rough and has a grey-brown colour. Resin filled blisters cover the trunk.
The twigs of balsam fir are smooth. This helps differentiate it from hemlock trees which look similar, but have rough twigs.
Many wildlife rely on balsam fir for food and shelter. Beaver construct their dams using the tree. Moose rely on it for food. Porcupine eat the bark. Red squirrels will cache away the cones and grouse will eat the seeds and buds.
The trees act as cover for birds, squirrels, and chipmunks. Deer, moose, and caribou will take refuge under the boughs in snow and heavy rains.
Resin and Topical Medicinal Uses
When wounded, balsam fir exudes resin which helps seal wounds and prevent insects, fungi, and bacteria from further harming the tree.
The resin has antiseptic and pain relieving properties. Traditionally, it was applied to wounds to help seal them and discourage infection. Some people make topical salves from balsam fir resin. That said, balsam resin causes dermatitis in some and may irritate mucous membranes.
Emergency Food Source
Balsam resin and cambium (the soft inner bark) can be eaten in a survival situation. It does not taste good, but will provide you with a few calories. Cambium can be dried and ground into flour. The needles and twigs of balsam fir can be boiled to make tea. The Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) used balsam tea to help treat colds, coughs, and asthma.
Balsam fir boughs can be layered to provide insulation from the cold ground. They can also create a water-resistant roof for shelters. Balsam wood is great for making bowdrill sets. The resin can act as a waterproof adhesive and torches can be made from resinous fir knots.
Jamie Simpson. 2015. Restoring the Acadian Forest: A Guide to Forest Stewardship for Woodlot Owners in Eastern Canada (2nd edition). Halifax: Nimbus Publishing.
Steve Foster and James A. Duke. 2014. Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America (3rd edition). New York: Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Lee Allen Peterson. 1977. Peterson Field Guides: Edible Wild Plants Eastern/Central North America. New York: Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
George A. Petrides and Janet Wehr. 1998. Peterson Field Guides: Eastern Trees. New York: Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Always consult a healthcare practitioner before trying to self-medicate using any kind of plant. This is especially true if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
It’s also important that you forage sustainably and correctly identify species. You can consult a reputable field guide or local expert. I have a post about foraging safely and sustainably.