Plant Profile: Balsam Fir

One of the longest standing and certainly most recognizable holiday traditions is the Christmas tree. Origins of the tradition of bringing greens into one’s home go all the way back to ancient Egypt, and later to Scandinavia and Germany, when freshly-cut greens were brought into the home to symbolize life’s triumph over death, and to show hope in the oncoming Spring. Martin Luther is credited with the first decorated Christmas tree, around the year 1500, when he put small lit candles on the branches of a cut fir tree, to show his children how the stars twinkled and the moon lit the snow-covered trees in the woods. From the 16th century onward, the tradition of Christmas trees spread throughout Europe, and eventually came to America with the first settlers, though did not become truly popular until the American Revolution. The business of mass-cutting and selling of Christmas trees started when a Catskill, NY farmer brought two ox-sleds of cut evergreens to New York City, and sold every last one. Tree farms enjoyed a boom during the depression, when nursery owners could not sell their live evergreens as landscape plants, so they cut them for Christmas Trees.

There are many different theories on how to care for your cut Christmas tree and make it last as long as possible. The most effective method of keeping a cut tree hydrated is to make a fresh cut at the base immediately before bringing it into the house. It is not necessary to cut it at an angle, or to drill a hole through the center. This only creates air pockets, which will not help hydration. Put the base of the tree into a bucket of hot (not boiling) water, and let it drink for several hours before putting it in the tree stand (unless the stand is one of those huge ones that can hold gallons of water). After putting the tree in the tree stand, continue to use warm water when watering the tree, and remember to check it often!

Most cut trees that you will find in the Northeast are Balsam Firs, Abies balsamea. These are a native plant to this region, and are certainly the most fragrant of the cut evergreens. Fraser and Douglas firs are also popular, as are different types of pine trees in other areas of the country. Cultivated trees are generally preferred to wild ones, as the care and trimming given to them at the tree farms make them much more symmetrical and dense. Fraser firs also have the added advantage of not shedding needles once they dry out, unlike balsams, which are still being vacuumed out of the carpeting months later.

Balsam Firs are native to the moist, boggy areas of the Northeast, and can grow in anything from sun to moderate shade. It grows best in the cooler areas of its range; hot, dry climates often times result in a very scraggly tree. They are relatively free of any major pest problems in the wild, and can reach a height of 40 to 60 feet. The balsam fragrance comes from the tree’s resin, stored in blisters along the trunk. Balsam will readily hybridize with Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) at the southern end of their range, resulting in the species Canaan Fir, so named for the region of West Virginia where the hybrid was first recognized.

In the landscape, balsam does well in either sun or light shade, in areas where the ground is moist. It can be pruned and made into a hedge, though the lower branches will tend to thin if they do not receive enough sunlight. They make an excellent specimen, perfect for a living Christmas tree on the lawn.