The Fragrant Fir
By Tamia Nelson
December 22, 2009
Car trips to faraway places were a rare treat when I was a youngster. This was in the day when most families were lucky to have one car, never mind three. And while it's true that the price of gasoline was then measured in gallons per dollar rather than the other way round, household incomes were a whole lot less than they are today. So the family car was mostly reserved for my father's daily commute. Road trips were luxuries. Still, my Grandad lived in the Adirondacks, and we made the drive from the New York‑Vermont border to the magical realm beyond the fabled Blue Line as often as we could. (What's the "Blue Line," you ask? A line drawn in blue ink marked the boundary of the Adirondack Forest Preserve on early maps, and today this Blue Line is synonymous with the Adirondack Park.)
As you might expect, on each of our infrequent family outings I climbed into the car in a state of barely controlled excitement. I was unmoved by the charms of the rural landscape between my home and the Blue Line. The overgrazed pastures and hardscrabble farms of dairy country seemed to slip by with agonizing slowness, until, at along last, I could see distant shadows rising from the horizon. These, I knew, marked the start of the Adirondack foothills. At first slowly, then with increasing rapidity, individual peaks emerged from among the shadows, as cultivated fields gave way to wetlands and deciduous trees ceded space to stands of conifers. Soon the highway wound around ragged outcrops and skirted sheer cliffs, while my heart danced a happy triphammer beat.
Our progress often seemed frustratingly sedate. The Adirondack Northway ended at Lake George in those days, and traffic slowed to a crawl at every crossroads hamlet. Impatient as I was to get to Grandad's camp, however, there was an upside to our stately passage. Each small town boasted a craft‑and‑curio shop, and we kids could sometimes persuade my father to stop at one. We didn't buy much — cash was always in short supply, and the gas for the trip consumed most of my family's discretionary income — but the shops were fascinating places to explore, nonetheless. Miniature bark canoes hung suspended from the ceilings like fish on a stringer, and wonderfully fragrant pillow‑shaped balsam sachets were piled high on the shelves. Most of the sachets bore some sort of embroidered legend, with "For you I pine/For you I balsam" being a favorite. Impossibly corny? Of course. But we kids thought that this overwrought pun was the height of wit. The writer E. B. White must have thought so, too, because an identical balsam sachet, bearing the selfsame legend, makes an appearance in Stuart Little, his enduringly popular children's book, as does a miniature bark canoe.
I loved the smell of those sachets, and it wasn't long before I learned to identify the aromatic scent of balsam with the deep Adirondack woods. Not that balsam firs are limited to the Adirondacks. In fact, their range more or less coincides with the geographic boundaries of Canoe Country, extending from Alberta to Newfoundland and from Minnesota to Maine. That said, balsam has more than its pleasant smell going for it. In the words of professor E. H. Ketchledge, it's…
"The Most Beautiful of all [North] American Conifers"
And while any such sweeping judgment is, I suppose, open to question, I wouldn't dispute this one. The balsam fir (known to botanists as Abies balsamea) is delightfully symmetrical, with a "spire‑like" crown. It's this quality that make it a favorite Christmas tree, along with balsam's ability to retain its needles long after other evergreens have dropped theirs. I'm afraid I'm a bit of a contrarian here, preferring a live tree outside my window, with chickadees and jays for ornaments, to a dead tree draped with tinsel in the living room, no matter how evocative that tree's aroma or lovely its shape. As luck would have it, however, there's no balsam to be seen from any window in my home, but at least I don't have to travel far to find one. The Adirondack foothills where I live lie right on an ecotone, the straggling border between the northern hardwood forest to the south and the boreal forest to the north, with the local woodlands embodying elements of each. The lowland valleys are dominated by beech, birch, maple and hemlock. Climb higher up the flanking hills, though, and the deciduous trees slowly give way to spruces and firs. Or, in this case, fir, since the balsam is the only species native to the northeastern United States.
But you don't need to feel sorry for the balsam. It may be lonely, the sole fir among several northern spruces, but it's not necessarily lonesome. You'll see balsams dotting the shores of beaver ponds and swamps. You'll also find them on the summits of all but the highest of the Adirondack High Peaks — a bit stunted, to be sure, but thriving. And where you see one, you'll probably find others. Balsam frequently forms pure stands. It loses little time in exploiting opportunities to expand its range, too. When windstorms level vast tracts of northern forest or loggers clear‑cut woodlands, balsam is quick to seed in, often dominating the new forest community. The secret to its success? The ability to "break bud" early in the year. This gives it a clear competitive advantage over the slower‑growing red spruce, though the spruce, being longer‑lived, may still win the race in the end: The spruce‑fir contest has a lot in common with the story of the tortoise and the hare.
So, how do you recognize a balsam when you come across one? Well, if your nose lets you down — and the characteristic balsam fragrance is less noticeable in winter than summer — you'll have to rely on your vision. The tree's symmetry is one clue (see the photo above), but you'll need to move in closer to make sure. Look at the bark first. The pungent resin that gives the balsam fir its wonderful aroma is contained in thousands of tiny blisters on the trunk. Here's what they look like:
The clear, viscous resin that oozes from these blisters solidifies into a gummy wad that served old‑time woodsmen as a sort of chewing gum. Filtered and purified, it was also sold as "Canada balsam" and used to cement multi‑element lenses together. I can even remember using it in preparing permanent slides for microscopic examination. Occasionally, you'll find small insects trapped in blobs of the stuff — precious amber in the making. But don't plan to cash in on your discovery any time soon. It takes eons for amber to form. Definitely an investment for the long term.
Having completed your examination of the bark, turn your attention to the needles. You'll find the underside of each needle marked by a pair of parallel stripes. This in itself isn't enough to distinguish balsam from hemlock, however. Hemlock needles exhibit similar markings. But they're only half as long as the needles of the balsam fir: half an inch rather than an inch in length. You can then confirm your observation by crushing a few needles between your fingers. The characteristic balsam fragrance will leave you in no doubt.
Now here's a close look at the underside of the tip of a balsam branch, showing the characteristic needle striping:
My thumb provides scale. And here's an even closer view:
If you look carefully, you'll see that the balsam needles are sessile, rather than stalked: they grow right out from the twig. Compare them to the hemlock needles in the photo below:
My thumb provides scale here, too. See the tiny leafstalks on the hemlock needles? You won't find them on balsam. So now you have another way to tell one from the other. (The cones are different, too. Balsam cones stand upright, and their tapered form reminds me of the parent tree. Hemlock cones hang down below the branches, and they're much smaller, into the bargain — no more than three‑quarters of an inch long, compared to the two‑ to three‑inch length of balsam cones.)
Not so very long ago, before the doctrine of low‑impact camping achieved ascendency, backcountry travelers followed Nessmuk's lead and made mattresses from springy balsam boughs. Or at least they did in books. I'm not sure if they often bothered to do so in real life. My Grandad, whose credentials as an Old Woodsman were impeccable, limited himself to making the occasional pillow from balsam browse. I don't know whether this was because he thought "browse beds" wasteful or just begrudged the time needed to lop off enough boughs to weave a springy mattress. In any case, browse beds (and even browse pillows) are now things of the past, along with the not inconsiderable labor that went into their making. And this is a Very Good Thing. Balsam browse is in much demand as a winter food by both whitetails and moose. They need it more than we do. If Grandad were alive today, I'm sure he would agree.
Which isn't to say that you can't pitch your camp among a stand of balsam firs from time to time. Your Therm‑a‑Rest or other lightweight mattress will keep you more comfortable than any browse bed could — and without requiring that you spend an hour in painstaking preparation! — but you'll still be able to enjoy the perfume of the North Woods. Plus you'll leave the scenery as you found it, something that's certain to be appreciated, both by other visitors and by permanent residents alike. If that isn't a win‑win scenario, I don't know what is.
'Tis the season for Yule logs, mistletoe, and tinsel, to be sure, yet I can't think of this time of year without thinking of the balsam fir. Few evergreens make such a powerful impression on the senses, combining near‑perfect symmetry and a heady perfume. But balsam isn't just another pretty face with a nice smell. It's a vital component of the northern forest, a source of food and shelter for all manner of creatures from mice to moose. I learned that lesson from my Grandad, and I haven't forgotten it. So no matter how far from his beloved Adirondacks life's swirling currents bear me, the fragrant fir comes along as my companion, if only in the fastnesses of memory.
Copyright © 2009 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.