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Abies balsamea - (L.)Mill.
Common Name Balsam Fir
Family Pinaceae
USDA hardiness 3-6
Known Hazards The oleoresin (Canada balsam) is reported to produce dermatitis when applied as perfume[222, 269]. The foliage has also induced contact dermatitis[269].
Habitats Low swampy grounds where it is often the major component of forests[82]. Also found on well-drained hillsides[82].
Range North-eastern N. America - Newfoundland to Virginia, west to Alberta, Michigan and Ohio.
Edibility Rating  
Other Uses  
Weed Potential No
Medicinal Rating  
Fully Hardy Moist Soil Full shade Semi-shade Full sun

Form: Pyramidal.

Abies balsamea Balsam Fir

Abies balsamea Balsam Fir
Physical Characteristics
 icon of manicon of cone
Abies balsamea is an evergreen Tree growing to 15 m (49ft) by 5 m (16ft) at a slow rate.
It is hardy to zone (UK) 2 and is not frost tender. It is in leaf 12-Jan It is in flower in May, and the seeds ripen from Sep to October. The flowers are monoecious (individual flowers are either male or female, but both sexes can be found on the same plant) and are pollinated by Wind.Suitable for: light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils and can grow in heavy clay soil. Suitable pH: acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils. It can grow in full shade (deep woodland) semi-shade (light woodland) or no shade. It prefers moist soil. The plant is not wind tolerant.

Pinus balsamea.

Woodland Garden Canopy; not Deep Shade;
Edible Uses
Edible Parts: Inner bark.
Edible Uses: Condiment;  Gum;  Tea.

Inner bark - cooked. It is usually dried, ground into a powder and then used as a thickening in soups etc or mixed with cereals when making bread[105, 177]. Fir bark is a delight to chew in winter or early spring, slightly mucilaginous and sweetish, better raw than cooked[269]. Another report says that it is an emergency food and is only used when all else fails[183]. An aromatic resinous pitch is found in blisters in the bark[64]. When eaten raw it is delicious and chewy[101, 183]. Another report says that the balsam or pitch, in extreme emergency, forms a highly concentrated, though disagreeable, food[269]. An oleoresin from the pitch is used as a flavouring in sweets, baked goods, ice cream and drinks[183]. Tips of young shoots are used as a tea substitute[177, 183].
Medicinal Uses

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Analgesic;  Antiscorbutic;  Antiseptic;  Diuretic;  Poultice;  Stimulant;  Tonic;  VD.

The resin obtained from the balsam fir (see 'Uses notes' below) has been used throughout the world and is a very effective antiseptic and healing agent. It is used as a healing and analgesic protective covering for burns, bruises, wounds and sores[213, 222, 226]. It is also used to treat sore nipples[213] and is said to be one of the best curatives for a sore throat[245]. The buds, resin, and/or sap are used in folk remedies for treating cancers, corns, and warts[269]. The resin is also antiscorbutic, diaphoretic, diuretic, stimulant and tonic[4, 171, 222]. It is used internally in propriety mixtures to treat coughs and diarrhoea, though taken in excess it is purgative[238]. A warm liquid of the gummy sap was drunk as a treatment for gonorrhoea[212]. A tea made from the leaves is antiscorbutic[4, 171]. It is used in the treatment of coughs, colds and fevers[222]. The leaves and young shoots are best harvested in the spring and dried for later use[238]. This plant was widely used medicinally by various North American Indian tribes[257]. The resin was used as an antiseptic healing agent applied externally to wounds, sores, bites etc., it was used as an inhalant to treat headaches and was also taken internally to treat colds, sore throats and various other complaints[257].
Other Uses
Adhesive;  Fibre;  Gum;  Kindling;  Microscope;  Repellent;  Resin;  Stuffing;  Waterproofing;  Wood.

The balsamic resin 'Balm of Gilead'[11, 46] or 'Canada Balsam' according to other reports[64, 226, 238] is obtained during July and August from blisters in the bark or by cutting pockets in the wood[222]. Another report says that it is a turpentine[171]. The term Canada Balsam is a misnomer because balsams are supposed to contain benzoic and cinnamic acids, both absent from the Canada oleoresin[269]. Turpentine is also a misnomer, implying that the oleoresin is entirely steam volatile. Actually it contains 70 - 80% resin, only 16 - 20% volatile oil[269]. Canada Balsam yields 15 - 25% volatile oil, the resin being used for caulking and incense[269]. It is used medicinally and in dentistry, also in the manufacture of glues, candles and as a cement for microscopes and slides - it has a high refractive index resembling that of glass[11, 46, 64, 82, 222, 226, 238]. The pitch has also been used as a waterproofing material for the seams of canoes[257]. The average yield is about 8 - 10 oz per tree[171]. The resin is also a fixative in soaps and perfumery[171, 238]. "Turpentine" is usually collected during July-August by breaking the turpentine blisters into small metal cans with sharp-pointed lids. Trees are then allowed to recuperate for 1 - 2 years before being harvested again[269]. The leaves and young branches are used as a stuffing material for pillows etc - they impart a pleasant scent[46, 61, 257] and also repel moths[169]. The leaves contain an average of 0.65% essential oil, though it can go up to 1.4% or even higher[269]. One analysis of the essential oils reports 14.6% bornyl acetate, 36.1% b-pinene, 11.1% 3-carene, 11.1% limonene, 6.8% camphene, and 8.4% a-pinene[269]. To harvest the oil, it would appear that the branches should be snipped off younger trees in early spring[269]. Fifteen year old trees yield 70% more leaf oil than 110-year-old trees; oil yields are highest in January - March and September, they are lowest from April to August[269]. A thread can be made from the roots[257]. Wood - light, soft, coarse grained, not strong, not very durable. Weighs 24lb per cubic foot[235]. Used mainly for pulp, it is not used much for lumber except in the manufacture of crates etc[46, 82, 226, 229]. The wood is commercially valuable for timber even though it is relatively soft, weak, and perishable[269]. Balsam fir is used in the US for timber and plywood, and is the mainstay of the pulp wood industry in the Northeast. The wood, which is rich in pitch, burns well and can be used as a kindling[257]
Cultivation details
Landscape Uses:Christmas tree, Screen, Specimen. Prefers a good moist but not water-logged soil[1]. Grows well in heavy clay soils. Very shade tolerant, especially when young[81, 126], but growth is slower in dense shade[81]. Intolerant of atmospheric pollution[1]. Prefers slightly acid conditions down to a pH of about5[200], though the cultivar 'Hudsonia' is more tolerant of alkaline conditions[238]. Prefers growing on a north-facing slope[200]. A shallow-rooted plant, making it vulnerable to high winds[229]. Balsam fir is estimated to tolerate an annual precipitation of 60 to 150cm, an annual temperature range of 5 to 12°C, and a pH of 4.5 to 7.5[269]. The balsam fir is a fast-growing tree in its native environment[229], but it is fairly short-lived and slow growing in Britain, becoming ungainly after about 20 years[11, 64, 81]. It grows best in the Perthshire valleys of Scotland[11, 185]. New growth takes place from late May to the end of July[185]. Trees are very cold hardy but are often excited into premature growth in mild winters and this new growth is susceptible to damage by late frosts[11]. Female strobili may be wholly or partially aborted up to 6 to 8 weeks after bud burst by late spring frosts[269]. Pollen dispersal can be reduced by adverse weather[269]. Trees should be planted into their permanent positions when they are quite small, between 30 and 90cm in height. Larger trees will check badly and hardly put on any growth for several years. This also badly affects root development and wind resistance[200]. Trees have a thin bark and are therefore susceptible to forest fires[229]. This species is closely related to A. fraseri[11]. Plants are strongly outbreeding, self-fertilized seed usually grows poorly[200]. They hybridize freely with other members of this genus[200]. The cones break up on the tree and if seed is required it should be harvested before the cones break up in early autumn[80]. Whilst the typical species is too large for most gardens, there are some named slow-growing dwarf forms that can be grown[238]. Whilst these will not provide the resin, their leaves can be used medicinally[K]. The leaves are strongly aromatic of balsam when crushed[185]. The tree is sometimes grown and used as a 'Christmas tree'[226]. Special Features: North American native, There are no flowers or blooms.
Seed - sow early February in a greenhouse or outdoors in March[78]. Germination is often poor, usually taking about 6 - 8 weeks[78]. Stratification is said to produce a more even germination so it is probably best to sow the seed in a cold frame as soon as it is ripe in the autumn[80, 113]. Stored seeds should be moist stratified 14 - 28 days at 1 - 5°C, though fresh seed may be sown in autumn without stratification, with target seedling densities in the nursery ca 450 - 500/m2, often mulched with sawdust. The seed remains viable for up to 5 years if it is well stored[113]. When large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them on for at least their first winter in pots. Plant them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts. Of slow initial growth, the stock is usually outplanted as 2- to 3-year-old seedlings or 3- to 4-year-old transplants Alternatively, if you have sufficient seed, it is possible to sow in an outdoor seedbed. One report says that it is best to grow the seedlings on in the shade at a density of about 550 plants per square metre[78] whilst another report says that they are best grown on in a sunny position[80]. Trees often self-layer in the wild[226], so this might be a means of increasing named varieties in cultivation[K].
Other Names
Found In
Weed Potential

Right plant wrong place. We are currently updating this section. Please note that a plant may be invasive in one area but may not in your area so it’s worth checking.

Conservation Status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants Status :
Related Plants
Latin NameCommon NameEdibility RatingMedicinal Rating
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Abies fraseriShe Balsam, Fraser fir, Southern Balsam Fir13
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Readers comment
Elizabeth H.
Terra Mon May 1 2006
It says here that the only edible part of the Balsam fir is the inner bark. However, in my research and studies I've found that the leaves are an excellent hiking snack and the sap is useful as gum or to drink. I've gotten my information from several books and other references and my own experimenting. I love Balsam fir needles and I have not died yet.
Elizabeth H.
Paul Evans Tue Mar 17 2009
You are making a mistake in your description of Balsam Fir. Balsam has needles, not leaves. Paul..
Elizabeth H.
Jack Thu Oct 22 2009
Wow...looks tasty.
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Subject : Abies balsamea  

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