Many of us are getting ready to pick out a Christmas tree, and if you’re anything like me you’ll be looking for a balsam fir (Abies balsamea).
This tree has been used at Christmas for more than 400 years and today it is one of the most sought-after Christmas trees in the United States.
The natural range of the balsam fir extends from eastern Minnesota across northern sections of Wisconsin, Michigan and New York, and then east through Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. There is also a thin extension that follows the Berkshires south to Connecticut. This range covers about 4 percent of the total land area of the United States.
Fortunately, Canada provides excellent growing conditions for balsam fir trees and many of “our” Christmas trees are grown there.
We call them “evergreens” because most conifer species have very long-lived leaves. Unlike deciduous trees, such as oaks and maples, which drop all of their leaves every autumn, conifers shed only a portion of their leaves (or needles) every year. As a result, they look healthy and alive all year, and this is why we use them at Christmas.
A balsam fir can be identified by two distinct field marks. First, the needles are flattened and are connected to the tree by what look like little suction cups. In contrast, hemlock needles have tiny stems on each of their needles.
Second, balsam firs have thin bark that develops smooth blisters filled with sap. Either of these characteristics will help identify the tree, but the blisters are a slam-dunk.
Every spring, balsam firs produce flowers. The male flowers grow along the undersides of branches that receive a lot of sunlight. These flowers open in May and are in lower sections of the tree. By contrast, the female flowers are at the top of the tree.
Why the big difference? By placing the female flowers so high above their male counterparts, each tree reduces the chances of self-pollination.
Once pollinated, the female flowers ripen into cones, which will attain a length of 2 to 4 inches. Just remember that not every cone is a “pine cone.” In the case of the balsam fir, they should really be called “fir cones.”
Each scale on a cone protects one or two seeds as they develop. In August, the first fully developed cones open their scales and allow the seeds to fall out.
Each seed has thin wings that allow it to travel up to 100 yards away from the parent tree on a windy day.
The seeds are viable for about one year, but it is important that they fall in an area with exposed soils that are damp and well-drained. If they fall on a thick layer of leaves, they will not survive.
Once a seed germinates and grows into a tiny seedling, it still has a long way to go before its future is secure.
Balsam firs experience a high first-year mortality rate from overheating, desiccation, being crushed by ice and snow, or smothered by the leaves of deciduous trees.
In addition, the balsam fir provides valuable winter food for deer and moose, as well as many small rodents.
If a young tree can survive the first year, then its chances improve dramatically. Eventually it may grow to about 60 feet in height with a diameter of 30 inches. Older balsam firs can live to be about 200 years old.
Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.