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Native the eastern Canadian forests, many homeowners in North America know the Balsam fir, Balsam, Blister fir, Balm-of-Gilead fir, or Canada balsam (Abies Balsamea) as their annual Christmas tree. It is rarely used in the home garden, though possible in temperate climates with mild summers and consistent rainfall. The tree forms a dense narrow pyramid making it a useful screen or windbreak planted in groups in the yard.
How to Identify Balsam Fir
The Balsam fir is a medium-sized evergreen coniferous tree, donning its ¾ to 1 inch (19 to 25.4 mm) long needles year-round. The mature tree has a narrow conical shape. At maturity, this tree grows to a height of 45 to 65 feet (14 to 20 m) with a spread of 20 to 25 feet (6 to 7.6 m). Growth occurs in whorls of branches that surround an upright terminal trunk, leading to a symmetrical-shaped tree with a broad base and a narrow top.
Its seed-bearing cones are usually between 1.6 to 32 inches (40 to 80 mm) long, with a dark purple color, and standing erect on the branches. These erect cones are a characteristic of true firs. There tend to be around 60,000 seeds in a pound of cones. The bark is grayish, smooth, and thick. On the bark are soft blisters, which is a defining characteristic of this tree, containing a clear odiferous resin. This resin is commonly known as Canadian balsam.
Where Does Balsam Fir Grow
The Balsam fir is native to the moist boreal and north temperate forests of the northeastern region of the North American continent. It grows from sea level to 5,500 feet (0 to 1,700 meters) of elevation.
More specifically, in Canada, Balsam fir grows in the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland.
In the United States, this fir grows upper Midwest and North Eastern states – Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, West Virginia, Iowa, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Native to a temperate climate, this fir does not fare well too far outside of its native region. Though, among trees in the same genus, Abies, the Balsam Fir has the broadest geographic range. Yet, it is not well-suited to hot-humid summers. As such, it won’t strive in most places further south than Pennsylvania or the upper Appalachian mountain zone (Virginia and West Virginia).
This tree is unlikely to survive in temperatures below -40ºF (-39.9ºC) for an extended period. The recommended hardiness zone is 3 (-30 to -40 F / -34.4 to -40 C).
Uses of Balsam Fir
Balsam fir is commonly used for Christmas trees, especially in the northeastern United States. This is because of the conical shape, attractive fragrance, and long needle retention period.
The resin produced by the tree, Canada balsam, was traditionally used as a cold remedy. In industry, the resin may be as a glue for glasses and optical instrument components.
Balsam fir is also often used for pulpwood, particleboard, and furniture. The tree contributes to construction lumber production, especially in the New England and Great Lake states.
It also makes an attractive ornamental yard tree.
How to Grow Balsam Fir from Seed
Balsam fir seeds are relatively easy to germinate and grow. It has a short dormancy period that is easy to break. Some growers break it with a short period of cold stratification in the refrigerator.
First, soak the seeds in water for 24 hours. After soaking, throw away all of the water and place the seeds in a zip-lock freezer bag before placing them in the refrigerator. Ensure that soaked seeds do not dry out or become waterlogged during this period.
After six to eight weeks in the refrigerator, the seeds are ready to be sown. Note, Balsam fir seeds won’t germinate without this treatment. This process mimics their natural germination pattern in the forest. There, Balsam fir seeds lay in the cold moist soil for months until their spring germination. Just sowing untreated seeds in compost at room temperature will not break their dormancy.
After the cold stratification period, fill a container with good quality potting compost. Use plant pots, seed trays, or plug trays. Sow the seeds on the surface of the gently patted compost. Sow 2 or 3 seeds per cell if using plug trays.
After sowing, cover the previously soaked seeds with a thin layer of vermiculite (less than 1/8 of an inch or just a couple of millimeters). Then, apply water gently and keep the container(s) at room temperature.
The seeds should germinate a few weeks after sowing. Seedlings are relatively robust and have few problems. They should grow to a height of ¾ of an inch to 2 inches (1.9 cm to 5.1 cm) by the end of the first growing season. But, this depends on the sowing date and horticultural techniques.
Place developing seedlings in full sun. Ensure that the soil has plenty of moisture and keep them free from competing weeds. By the second year, growth should accelerate, and even more so in the subsequent years. Though, this is a relatively slow-growing tree.
After three years in a container, plant seedlings in their permanent location. They should be strong enough to survive the natural elements by then.
Balsam Fir Growing Conditions
Balsam fir grows best in moist soils. But, it needs to be cool, well-drained, and acidic. Balsam fir is not tolerant of clay soils.
The tree requires full or partial sun for optimal growth, which is no less than four hours of direct sunlight daily.
When to Plant Balsam Fir
For seedlings, plant as early in the spring as possible. Ideally, plant after the last frost. This is a great period because the soil moisture is high and temperatures are still relatively mild.
In most growing regions (Northeastern USA, Upper Mid-Western USA, and the Central/Eastern Provinces of Canada) late summer plantings are usually not as successful as print plantings due to warmer soils. But, overall it is better to plant when temperatures are cool and the soil is moist yet well-drained.
How to Plant Balsam Fir
Plant Balsam fir trees either in the fall or spring. They can either come in the form of seedlings, or if more mature – balled, in burlap, or bare-root. Before planting young trees, soak them in a bucked for several hours.
Avoid planting during periods of extreme heat or drought. Select a sunny or lightly shaded location for the tree. After planting, water deeply and mulch heavily, around 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7.5 cm).
Balsam Fir Water Requirements
Overall a more soil is always better than drier soil with this tree. This tree does not tolerate dry soils, dry spells, or droughts. It needs a constant supply of water. Especially young trees, they need a lot of water, it is best to allow the saturate the soil around the tree with water. Older trees only require watering during prolonged dry spells as their roots have sunk deep into the soil.
Balsam Fir Sun Requirements
Once grown in the appropriate climate, with an absence of hot humid summers, this tree grows best in full sun. That means 6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day.
Best Balsam Fir Fertilizer
Generally, fertilizing forest trees does not result in better growth.
Though, fertilization will facilitate better needle retention and improve color. To make off-color trees “green up” it is recommended to apply two to five ounces of nitrogen-rich fertilizer, such as urea, around the drip line of each tree in the spring. The drawback of this is that this can be an expensive practice and the results are not always consistent.
Best Balsam Fir Companion Plantings
Balsam firs pair well with the following trees and shrubs for several aesthetic and practical reasons:
- Maple (Acer glabrum or macrophyllum), Oak (Quercus sp.) – for their beautiful autumn foliage which accent the green of the fir;
- Incense-cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), Jeffery Pine (Pinus jeffreyi), Bay Laurel (Umbellularia californica) – for their complementary evergreen foliage providing a variety of textures;
- Cherry (Prunus sp.), Flannelbush (Fremontodendron sp.), Dogwood (Cornus sp.) – flowering trees and shrubs present a brilliant display with a solid evergreen backdrop.
Balsam Fir Diseases and Common Problems
Common pests include – Balsam woolly adelgids, bark beetles, spruce budworms, aphids, bagworms, and scale. Also, spider mites may cause a problem in hotter conditions.
Common diseases include – cankers, heart rot, root rot, needle rust, and twig blight. This tree is intolerant of urban pollution. In relatively warm humid weather, root rot is a common problem. Hot weather will result in sun-scald. Finally, this tree is not drought tolerant.
Balsam Fir Treatments and Maintenance
If there is not frequent rain, water young plants frequently. Young trees need a lot of water to grow well. As such, leave the water hose to saturate the soil around the tree and under the mulch. Let it run slowly for about an hour. Older trees have roots deeply entrenched into the soil and thus are not as sensitive to short periods without rain. But, it is important to remember that Balsam firs are in no way drought tolerant.
Fertilize the trees in the spring using a completely balanced fertilizer following the manufacturer’s instructions. Over-fertilization may seriously damage the tree, so do not overdo it. Mature trees rarely require fertilization.
How to Remove Balsam Fir
In most instances, for homeowners, it is recommended to use professional tree removal services to avoid damage to the surrounding areas and to ensure personal safety. Here are some general practices applicable to conifers like the Balsam Fir.
Some people just cut down the trees and leave the stump behind. But leaving the stump may result in sprouting. Some cut down the tree and then dig up the stump to prevent this. Before cutting down the tree consider a few things.
Appropriate tools such as a chainsaw and pruning tools must be ready, as several hinge cutting techniques require various tools. One should also decide the best direction for the tree to fall – a tree’s proximity to roads, overhead lines, and buildings.
Another option is to poison the tree by cutting it and exposing the cambium, which transports nutrients and water throughout the tree, to a herbicide. This popular and highly recommended method is called frilling. Doing so allows the tree and its roots to die after several weeks.
Once the tree is dead, cut through the trunk with a chainsaw to bring down the tree. Frilling overall is very effective as it kills the entire tree. After the frilling process, dig up the dead stump and roots to prevent pests.
Where to Buy Balsam Fir Seeds Online
Balsam tree seeds can be purchased from the following seed sellers:
TreeSeeds.com serves thousands of customers from first-time growers, hobbyists, to professional nurserymen with tree and shrub seeds. Clients in the USA and Canada benefit from free shipping on orders over $60.
The Jonsteen Company (SequoiaTrees.com) is a California-based tree company that specializes in Giant Sequoia and Coast Redwood trees however they also have a wide variety of tree seedlings, including Fraser fir. They offer a Fraser fir grow kit with detailed instruction and a growing medium, this can be useful for projects with children.
Where to Buy Balsam Fir Saplings Online
ChiefRiverNursery.com sells 2 to 5-year-old saplings. Chief River Nursery specializes in quality bare root trees and shrubs and evergreen plugs. They offer a wide variety of conifers.
Nurserymen.com specializes in evergreen seedlings and transplants. They guarantee no shipping fees, same-day shipping, and a one-year guarantee.
In New Hampshire Department of Forests and Lands also sells Balsam fir trees. They sell them in bulk, per 10 up to per 1000.
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- https://www.arborday.org/trees/treeGuide/TreeDetail.cfm?ItemID=1105#:~:text=The%20balsam%20fir%20can%20be%20expected,to%20grow%20in%20Hardiness%20Zones%203%E2%80%935. ↑
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