Trees of the Adirondack Park: Balsam Fir on the Barnum Brook Trail at the Paul Smiths VIC (28 July 2012)

Trees of the Adirondacks:
Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea)

Trees of the Adirondacks: Balsam Fir on the Barnum Brook Trail (21 July 2012) Trees of the Adirondacks: Balsam Fir needles are short, flat, and friendly to the touch. Balsam Fir on the Barnum Brook Trail (21 July 2012)

The Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) is a small to medium-sized tree widespread in moist woodlands and swamps in boreal forests of the Adirondacks. Within its range it may also be referred to as Balsam, Canadian Balsam, Canada Balsam, Eastern Fir, and Bracted Balsam Fir. It is the provincial tree of New Brunswick. This species is a member of the pine family.

Trees of the Adirondacks: Balsam Fir on the Logger's Loop Trail (10 May 2014)
The bark of young Balsam Fir trees is brown, thin, and smooth, with many resin blisters. Balsam Fir on the Logger's Loop Trail (10 May 2014)

Identification of the Balsam Fir: The Balsam Fir features aromatic foliage and a narrow, pointed, spire-like crown. The needles are flat, about 3/4 long, and dark green in color. The under side of the needle is pale with a few white lines. Like all firs, the needles are generally the longest in the middle of the twig. The needles are arranged spirally on the shoot. However, on the lower branches, the leaf bases are twisted to appear in two more-or-less horizontal rows. On branches higher on the tree or those exposed to direct sunlight, the needles project in all directions like spruce needles. Chemicals in the needles give this tree a unique defense against insect feeders, as they mimic a growth hormone that interferes with normal insect metamorphosis.

Balsam Fir bark is thin, gray and smooth, with many resin blisters. The bark often becomes broken into irregular brownish scales as the tree ages. Both male and female cones occur on the top branches of the tree. The cones are 1.5 to 3 inches long. The cones are purplish in color and stand erect on branches. The twigs are smooth.

Keys to identifying the Balsam Fir and differentiating it from other coniferous trees include its needles, bark, and habitat.

Differentiating Balsam Fir from Eastern Hemlock is somewhat trickier.

Uses of the Balsam Fir: This tree is used primarily for pulp and light frame construction. It has been used for paneling, crates, barrels, and plywood, and other products not requiring high structural strength. The tree's main economic value is as Christmas trees, since balsam holds its aromatic needles indoors much longer than spruce. The aromatic foliage of Balsam Fir is also used to make balsam pillows. The resin has been used for medicine, turpentine, glue, and varnish. The resin was formerly used in medicine, optics, and microscopy, but has now largely been replaced by synthetics.

This plant was widely used medicinally by various North American Indian tribes. Native American tribes made extensive use of Balsam Fir to treat a wide variety of ailments, including heart disease, colds, kidney pains, sore throat, rheumatic joints, headache, coughs, boils, bruises, sprains, and colic. Several tribes used the needles to make pillows, believing that the aroma promoted good health.

Birds of the Adirondacks: Yellow-rumped Warbler near the first overlook on the Bancum Brook Trail (17 September 2014)
Yellow-rumped Warblers frequently nest in Balsam Firs. Yellow-rumped Warbler near the first overlook on the Barnum Brook Trail. (17 September 2014)

Wildlife Value of the Balsam Fir: The Balsam Fir is moderately important to wildlife. The evergreen foliage of young trees is useful to mammals and game birds for cover, especially in winter. Browsers, particularly White-tailed Deer and Moose, may resort to fir foliage as a large part of their winter menu. The seeds are sought by Red Squirrels, chipmunks and other rodents. Porcupines feed on the bark.

Balsam Fir provides food and breeding habitat for a number of birds. The winged seeds are eaten from the cones by at least eight species of songbirds (such as crossbills). Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers chisel feeding wells in the bark. Yellow-rumped Warblers, Magnolia Warblers, Veery, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks often choose this species as a nest site.

The Balsam Fir is a common tree species in the breeding habitat of a wide variety of birds, including:

Black-backed Woodpecker Boreal Owl
Downy Woodpecker Yellow-rumped Warbler
Veery Cape May Warbler
Evening Grosbeak Boreal Chickadee
Mourning Warbler Bay-breasted Warbler
Nashville Warbler Blackpoll Warbler
Golden-crowned Kinglet Brown Creeper
White-throated Sparrow Bicknell's Thrush

Distribution of the Balsam Fir: This species is widely distributed in northeastern North America. In Canada, the tree's range extends from Newfoundland and Labrador west through the more northerly portions of Quebec and Ontario. In the United States, the range of the Balsam Fir extends from extreme northern Minnesota west of Lake-of-the-Woods southeast to Iowa; east to central Wisconsin and central Michigan into New York and central Pennsylvania; then northeastward from Connecticut to the other New England States. In New York State, the Balsam Fir is found in most of the northeastern counties, encompassing the Adirondack Park, as well as the Catskills.

This tree grows best in the eastern part of its range in southeastern Canada and the Northeastern United States, in areas characterized by cool temperatures and abundant moisture. Balsams are usually found in mixed conifer forests with Eastern Hemlock and spruce. It also grows in mixed hardwood/conifer forests with aspens, birches, maples and beech species.

Trees of the Adirondacks: Balsam Fir and Red Spruce growing on the old golf course on the Silvi Trail (25 July 2012). 
Balsam Fir and Red Spruce growing on the old golf course on the Silvi Trail (25 July 2012).

Balsam Fir at the Paul Smiths VIC: Balsam Fir trees, in contrast to Black Spruce and Tamaracks, do not grow in the middle of bogs or marshes. However, they do like moist areas, so look for them in somewhat swampy areas or near the banks of brooks. They can usually be found in mixed stands, with other conifers and hardwoods that are tolerant of moist soils.

Look for Balsam Fir along many of the trails at the VIC, growing near Hobblebush, Eastern Hemlock, Red Maple, and Red Spruce. A number of herbaceous plants flourish near this tree, including Twinflower, Creeping Snowberry, Common Woodsorrel, Bunchberry, Canada Mayflower, Clintonia, and Painted Trillium.

The most convenient place to observe the Balsam Fir and compare it with other conifers at the VIC is on the Barnum Brook Trail. This species is one of the eleven tree species marked with signage along this trail. The identified Balsam Fir is about a third of a mile from the entrance gazebo. If you take the left hand fork and walk the trail in a clockwise direction, the tree is just past the first overlook, on the left hand side of the trail.


References

Trees of the Adirondack Mountains



Explore the VIC

The Paul Smiths VIC offers a wide variety of programs throughout the year to educate and inform Adirondack Park residents and visitors about the natural wonders of the Adirondack Mountains. You can help support these programs by joining the Friends of the VIC. More information on Friends of the VIC memberships

Explore the Trails

The VIC trails are free and open to the public, from dawn to dusk, spring through fall. In winter, the trails are open to cross-country skiers and snowshoers for a fee. Day or season passes may be purchased.