little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower
who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see I will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly
-E. E Cummings
Abies balsamea, balsam fir is familiar as the traditional, fragrant Christmas tree among many people. The human nose can detect thousands of different odors – a whiff of the ocean, freshly cut grass, vanilla, coffee, lilacs – but many of us experience distinct emotions reaching back to childhood memories of Christmas when smelling a balsam fir. To quote Helen Keller, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived.”
Native to North America, especially at higher altitudes, from Labrador to northeastern British Columbia and south to northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and throughout northern New England this is a cold climate tree that does not do well in the Boston area.
Its needles are flat, ½ to 1 inch long, bluish-green above with a double-white stripe underneath. The needles are spirally arranged but often appear in flat rows on either side of the branch or twig. Their fragrance is pungent sweet.
Balsam fir cones, two to four inches long, with a purplish color, sit upright on top of branches until seeds inside ripen. Then the cones disintegrate by dropping their scales. Seed production begins when trees reach about fifteen years of age and then will produce heavily every two to four years.
Balsam fir seed is the preferred food of boreal and black-capped chickadees, evening and pine grosbeaks, purple finch, red-crossbill and spruce grouse. This seed is also eaten by gray jay, blue jay, ruffed grouse, white-breasted nuthatch as well as red squirrel and mice. The tree’s sap nourishes the yellow-bellied sapsucker and moose and deer browse on its needles. The tree is used for nesting by many bird species, for their first nest of the season, which is commonly built before deciduous trees produce leaves.
As for our use of these as Christmas trees, contrary to E. E. Cummings’ allusion above, they are currently generally farm-grown taking seven to nine years to reach the five to six foot height we purchase. During this season’s holidays reacquaint yourself with the ineffable aromatherapy emitted from this sentimental favorite.
Some close relatives of the Balsam Fir that you can find at Mount Auburn Cemetery are:
Abies fraseri, Fraser Fir
Abies koreana, Korean Fir
Abies lasiocarpa var. arizonica, Arizona Fir
Abies nephrolepis, Manchurian Fir
Abies veitchii, Veitch Fir
*This horticultural highlight was originally published in the December 2009 issue of the Friends of Mount Auburn electronic newsletter.