Abies balsamea (L.) Mill.
Balsam Fir, Balm of Gilead Tree, Canada Balsam
Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished.
- Folk Medicine
- Yields and Economics
- Biotic Factors
The balsam or pitch, in extreme emergency, forms a highly concentrated, though
disagreeable, food." (Fernald, Kinsey, and Rollins, 1958). Bark of conifers,
mostly, was so important in the diet of some tribes that at least one tribe,
the Adirondacks, owe their name to the Mohawk term for "tree eaters." Erika
Gaertner devotes a four-page article to the making of breadstuff from the bark
of balsam fir. In contrast to pine bark, the fir bark is a delight to chew in
winter or early spring, slightly mucilaginous and sweetish, better raw than
cooked (Gaertner, 1970). Inner bark that does not show any discoloration can
be used for breadstuff and it takes about an hour to peel enough for one loaf.
Leaves average 0.65% essential oil, ranging to 1.4% or higher. Trunks also
yield oil of "Canada balsam" or turpentine, used as a permanent mounting medium
in microscopy and as a cement for glassware. Canada turpentine yields 1525%
volatile oil, the resin being used for caulking and incense (Erichsen-Brown,
1979). Often used for Christmas trees. Abies species are commercially
valuable for timber even though their wood is relatively soft, weak, and
perishable. Balsam fir is used in the US for timber and plywood, and is the
mainstay of the pulp wood industry in the northeast.
According to Hartwell (19671971), the buds, resin, and/or sap are used in folk
remedies for cancers, corns, and warts. Reported to be anodyne, antiseptic,
diaphoretic, diuretic, masticatory, and vulnerary, balsam fir is a folk remedy
for bronchitis, burns, cancer, catarrh, cold, consumption, cough, dysentery,
earache, gleet, gonorrhea, heart ailments, leucorrhea, paralysis, rheumatism,
scurvy, sores, ulcers, urogenital ailments, warts, and wounds (Duke and Wain,
1981; Erichsen-Brown, 1979). Chippewa used the gum as an analgetic, the root
decoction as an antirheumatic. Kwakiutl used the gum as a laxative and held
the root in the mouth to cure sores there. Menominee used the gum for colds,
cuts, lungs, and sores, the inner bark for chest pains, colds, and skin.
Montagnai applied the gum for chest or heart pain. Ojibwa use the gum for
colds, sores, sore eyes, and venereal diseases; the leaves as stimulant;
Penobscot used the gum for cuts and sores; Pillagers used the needles in sweat
baths and fumitories. Potawatomi used the gum for colds and sores, the bark
infusion for consumption and other ailments. Caughnawaga used the gum as a
cataplasm for cancer (Duke, 1983c).
Reducing sugars are said to account for 47% of the DM of balsam fir bark. The
leaf oil contains 17.6% bornyl acetate and probably 1-a-pinene, Canada
balsam contains ca 20% 1-b-phellandrene and smaller quantities of a- and
b-pinene bornyl acetate, and the alcohols androl and bupleurol (Guenther,
1948-1952). Oils are also reported to contain juvabione and dehydrojuvabione
(List and Horhammer, 19691979). The term Canada Balsam is a misnomer because
balsams are supposed to contain benzoic and cinnamic acids, both absent from
the Canada oleoresin. "Turpentine" is also a misnomer, implying that the
oleoresin is entirely steam volatile. Actually it contains 7080% resin, only
16-20% voaltile oil (Anderson, 1955). 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 (Erichsen-Brown, 1979).
Canada balsam is reported to produce dermatitis when applied as perfume. The
foliage has also induced contact dermatitis.
Tree to 20 m tall; trunk 35 dm in diameter. Bark brown, broken into scaly
plates with resin-filled pockets. Twigs pale green and pubescent when young,
becoming gray, reddish, or purplish. Leaves dark green, linear, sessile,
spiral in origin, but twisted at base to form two ranks; leaves persisting many
years; leaf-scars circular. Lower leaves to 3 cm long, those on coniferous
branches much shorter. Winter buds globose, 36 mm in diameter, with
orange-green scales, resinous. Mature cones nearly cylindrical, 38.5 cm long
by 23 cm thick, dark purple when growing. Bracts ovate, the distinct awn
protruding beyond the scale below it. Seeds ovoid or oblong, acute at base,
with thin wing and resinous vesicles, maturing in one summer. Germination
phanerocotylar (Brown and Brown, 1972).
Reported from the North American Center of Diversity, balsam fir, or cvs
thereof, is reported to tolerate frost and slope. (2n = 24)
Labrador and Newfoundland south to New York and Pennsylvania, west to
central-Wisconsin and Minnesota, north and west to Alberta; generally south of
55°N latitude, except in Alberta and Saskatchewan (Ag. Handbook 450,
Estimated to range from Cool Temperate Moist to Wet through Boreal Moist to Wet
Forest Life Zones, balsam fir is estimated to tolerate annual precipitation of
6 to 15 dm, annual temperature of 5 to 12°C, and pH of 4.5 to 7.5. Female
strobili may be wholly or partially aborted up to 6 to 8 weeks after bud burst
by late spring frosts. Pollen dispersal can be reduced by adverse weather (Ag.
Handbook No. 450)
Flowering in May, fruiting August-September; seeds are dispersed in late
September. Extensive data on seed vitality etc. are reported in Agriculture
Handbook No. 450. Seeds should be moist stratified 1428 days at 15°C.
Seed may be sown in autumn without stratification, with target seedling
densities in the nursery ca 450500/m2, often mulched with sawdust. Of slow
initial growth, the stock is usually outplanted as 2- to 3-year-old seedlings
or 3- to 4-year-old transplants (Ag. Handbook 450, 1974).
"Turpentine" is usually collected July-August by breaking the turpentine
blisters into small metal cans with sharp-pointed lids. Trees are then allowed
to recuperate 12 years. For the leaf oil, it would appear that branches
should be snipped off younger trees in early spring (January-March).
Fifteen year old trees yield 70% more leaf oil than 110-year-old trees; oil
yields are highest in JanuaryMarch and September, lowest from April to August.
Around 1800, one author reported averaging nearly a ton of balsam at "6 pence a
lb." (Erichsen-Brown, 1979).
According to the phytomass files (Duke, 1981b), annual productivity ranges from
9 to 13 MT/ha, standing biomass from 77200 MT/ha. Gaertner cites references
dealing with the potential use of bark for fuel, as charcoal or briquets.
The following are listed as affecting Abies balsamea: Acanthostigma
parasiticum, Adelopus nudus, Aleurodiscus abietis, A. amorphus, Armillaria
mellea, Ascocalyx abietis, Bifusella faulii, B. linearis, Cenangium
ferruginosum, Cephalosporium sp., Coniophora puteana, Corticium
galactinum, Coryne sarcoides, Cryptosporium macrospermum, Cyptospora pinastri,
Dasyscypha agassizii, D. arida, D. calyciformis, D. calycina, D. resinaria,
Dermea balsamea, Dimerosporium balsamicola, Echinodontium tinctorium, Flammula
alnicola, Fomes pini, F. pinicola, F. robustus, F. roseus, F. subroseus,
Fusicoccum abietinum, Gloeosporium balsameae, Herpotrichia nigra, Hyalopsora
aspidiotus, Hydnum balsameum, Hymenochaete tabacina, H. mirabilis, H. nervata,
H. punctata, Lenzites saepiaria, Leucostoma kunzei, Limacina alaskensis,
Lophodermium autumnale, L. lacerum, L. piceae, Melampsora abieti-capraearum, M.
epitea, Melampsorella caryophyllacearum, M. cerastii, Merulius himantoides,
Micropera abietis, Milesina fructuosa, M. laeviuscula, M. marginalis, M.
polypodophila, M. pycnograndis, M. vogesiaca, Nectria cucurbitula,
Nothophacidium abietinellum, Odontia bicolor, Ophionectria scolecospora,
Peniophora gigantea, Peridermium balsameum, Phacidium abietinellum, P. abietis,
P. balsameae, P. infestans, Phaeocryptopus nudus, Phaeophacidium abietinum,
Polyporus abietinus, P. anceps, P. balsameus, P. circinatus, P. fragilis, P.
guttulatus, P. hirtus, P. mollis, P. resinosus, P. schweinitzii, P. tomentosus,
Poria sericeo-mollis, P. subacida, P. vaporaria, Potebniamyces balsamicola,
Pucciniastrum epilobii, P. goeppertianum, P. pustulatum, Rehmiel-lopsis
abietis, R. balsamea, Rhizosphaera pini, Rhizothyrium abietis, Sarcotrochila
balsamea, Scoleconectria cucurbitula, Sphaeropsis abietis, Stereum chailletii,
S. pini, S. sanguinolentum, Thyronectria balsamea, Trametes heteromorpha,
Trichoscyphella resinaria, Tympanis pinastri, Uredinopsis ceratophora, U.
longimucronata, U. mirabilis, U. osmundae, U. phegopteris, U. struthiopteridis,
Valsa abietis, V. pini (Ag. Handbook 165, 1960; Browne, 1968). Also listed
in Browne (1968) are the following: Angiospermae: Viscum album; Acarina:
Trisetacus grosmanni; Coleoptera: Dryocoetes confusus, Hylobius
pales, H. pinicola, H. warreni, Melanophila drummondi, Monochamus scutellatus,
Pityokteines sparsus, Pityophthorus cariniceps, P. granulatus, P. puberulus,
Polygraphus rufipennis; Diptera: Dasyneura balsamicola; Hemiptera:
Adelges piceae, Aphrophora parallela, Cinara curvipes, Mindarus abietinus,
Prociphilus bumeliae; Hymenoptera: Camponotus spp., Gilpinia
hercyniae, Megastigmus specularis, Neodiprion abietis, Pleroneura borealis,
Urocerus albicornis, Xeris spectrum; Lepidoptera: Acleris variana,
Choristoneura fumiferana, Cladaria limitaria, Dasychira plagiata, Dioryctria
abietivorella, Hemerocampa leucostigma, Lambdina fiscellaria, Lymantria dispar,
Melanolophia imitata, Orgyia antiqua, Protoboarmia porcelaria, Semiothisa
granitata, Zeiraphera canadensis; Aves: Loxia curvirostra, L.
leucoptera; and Mammalia: Alces alces, Erethizon dorsatum, Euarctos
americanus, Odocoileus virginianus, Peromyscus sp., Tamiasciurus
hudsonicus. Seed production may be reduced by squirrels and birds.
Abies cones are preferred source of food for squirrels in some
localities. Large quantities of cones are cut and cached; such cutting may
also reduce future cone crops. Cone and seed insects may significantly reduce
seed yields and occasionally totally destroy seed crops. Seed chalcids
(Megastigmus spp.) are most common and may be abundant enough to have a
major impact. For example, Megastigmus pinus typically infest 8-10% of
A. concolor seed and have destroyed as much as 60% of a crop. Cone
moths (e.g., Barbara colfaxiana siskiyouana and Dioryctria
abietivorlla) and cone maggots (Earomyia spp.) cause the most
conspicuous damage; all seeds are lost in heavily infested cones. Cone and
scale midges cause no significant loss, but seed or gall midges may reduce seed
yields by fusing seeds to cone scales (Ag. Handbook 450, 1974). Nematodes
reported include Criconemella (Criconemoides) lobata, Paratylenchus sp.,
Rotylenchus sp., Tylenchorhynchus maximus and Xiphinema
americana (Golden, p.c. 1984).
Complete list of references for Duke, Handbook of Energy Crops
- Agriculture Handbook 165. 1960. Index of plant diseases in the United States.
- Agriculture Handbook 450. 1974. Seeds of woody plants in the United States.
Forest Service, USDA. USGPO. Washington.
- Anderson, A.B. 1955. Recovery and utilization of tree extractives. Econ. Bot.
- Brown, R.C. and Brown, M.L. 1972. Woody plants of Maryland. Port City Press,
- Browne, F.G. 1968. Pests and diseases of forest plantations trees. Clarendon
- Duke, J.A. 1981b. The gene revolution. Paper 1. p. 89-150. In: Office of
Technology Assessment, Background papers for innovative biological technologies
for lesser developed countries. USGPO. Washington.
- Duke, J.A. 1983c. Amerindian medicinal plants. Typescript.
- Duke, J.A. and Wain, K.K. 1981. Medicinal plants of the world. Computer index
with more than 85,000 entries. 3 vols.
- Erichsen-Brown, C. 1979. Use of plants for the past 500 years. Breezy Creeks
Press. Aurora, Canada.
- Fernald, M.L., Kinsey, A.C., and Rollins, R.C. 1958. Edible wild plants of eastern
North America. Rev. Ed. Harper & Bros., New York.
- Gaertner, E.E. 1970. Breadstuff from fir (Abies balsamea). Econ. Bot. 24(1):69-72.
- Guenther, E. 1948-1952. The essential oils. 6 vols. D. van Nostrand
Co., Inc. Toronto, New York, London.
- Hartwell, J.L. 1967-1971. Plants used against cancer. A survey. Lloydia 30-34.
- List, P.H. and Horhammer, L. 1969-1979. Hager's handbuch der
pharmazeutischen praxis. vols 2-6. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.
Last update November 10, 1997