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Abies balsamea (L.) Mill.

Balsam Fir

Modern name

Abies balsamea (L.) Mill.


Pinus balsamea L.

A tree 60 to 80 ft high; young shoots downy; winter buds red, very resinous, roundish. Leaves on young trees in two opposite sets spreading horizontally; 12 to 114 in. long, 120 to 116 in. wide, the uppermost leaves much the shorter, rounded or notched at the apex, glossy green above, with a few broken lines of stomata near the tip; the under-surface with two narrow whitish bands each composed of four to eight lines of stomata. On cone-bearing shoots the leaves are often pointed (sometimes sharply) as well as rounded or slightly notched, and they are stiffer, broader (112 in. wide), and curved upwards rather than arranged in two sets. Cones 212 to 312 in. long, 1 to 114 in. wide, dark purple or olive-green, the bracts either quite enclosed within the scales or slightly exposed.

Native of Canada from Labrador to the Upper Yukon; south of the border it ranges into the Lake States and through New England into Virginia; introduced by Bishop Compton in 1697. It is among the biggest failures of firs in this country, for it is short-lived and becomes ungainly after twenty or so years. But when young it is an elegant tree and grows as well in south-eastern England as it does in Scotland. In previous editions, trees at Keillour, Perthshire, were mentioned; planted in 1830, some had attained a height of 60 ft by the end of the century but were even then falling into decrepitude. At the present time there are two small plots in Scotland; in one of these, at Kilmun in Argyllshire planted in 1930, the best is 45 × 234 ft (1964). In the south of England the few specimens range from 30 to 55 ft; the tree at Leonardslee, Sussex, although not among the tallest, is very shapely and slender. Ellen Willmott had a balsam fir in her famous garden at Great Warley, Essex.

The species is closely related to A. fraseri, under which the distinctions are referred to. It yields a transparent balsamic resin, known as Balm of Gilead or Canada Balsam, and is popular in parts of N. America as a Christmas tree.

f. hudsonia (Jacques) Fern. & Weatherby – A curious, very dwarf mountain form rarely more than 2 ft high, which never bears cones. Leaves about 14 in. long. Found originally on the White Mountains of New Hampshire, U.S.A.

From the Supplement (Vol. V)

Even in the wild, and under optimum conditions, the balsam fir has a girth at maturity of only 4 to 5 ft and a height of 40 to 60 ft. Its performance in the British Isles is therefore not so poor as might seem at first glance. The best measured recently are: Crarae, Argyll, pl. 1935, 36 × 334 ft (1976); Ardross Castle, Ross, 48 × 234 ft (1980); Headfort, Co. Meath, Eire, pl. 1925, 48 × 3 ft (1980); Fenagh House, Co. Carlow, Eire, pl. 1918, 42 × 314 ft (1975).

f. hudsonia – H.J. Welch distinguishes between cv. ‘Hudsonia’, a clone, or possibly a group of similar clones, with a flattened-globose or cushion habit and semi-radial foliage, and ‘Nana’, of globose habit and radially arranged leaves (Dwarf Conifers, p. 107; Manual, p. 142). The former is more usual in cultivation. Dwarf forms of the balsam fir are not uncommon in the mountains of New England and New York State.



Other species in the genus