The quietness of the woods wrapped around me as I paused for a moment to listen. Under the combination of sunshine and fresh snow, the world gleamed. As my sphere of awareness widened, I realized that the woods weren’t as quiet as I’d first thought. My local flock of chickadees chattered and scolded in a birch tree. A woodpecker drummed nearby. And behind it all was the soft patter of twigs releasing their snow load and the plopping of the damp clumps onto the ground.
A clinging, wet snow had blanketed everything. While the snow-lined twigs of deciduous trees made artful black-and-white designs against the sky, it was a grove of small balsam firs—their pliable boughs drooping gracefully under the icy frosting—that perfected the winter scene.
Most of the year, balsam firs aren’t highly sought-after. Their wood is soft and brittle. It doesn’t hold nails. Pulpwood or light frame construction is about all they are good for.
It’s this time of year—with snow clinging to everything and holiday carols on the radio—that balsams prove their worth. Their conical shape, dark green color, and long-lasting needles make balsams ideal Christmas trees—whether or not they ever make it to your living room. Those characteristics also make them ideally adapted to winter. The graceful droop of their boughs is no accident; that’s an adaptation to living in areas with lots of snow. Better to bend than to break. The beautiful green of their needles means that they can extend their growing season to the max by being ready to photosynthesize whenever conditions are favorable.
A slight breeze through the treetops initiated a cascade of snow plops onto the trail—and down my neck. That got me hiking again. As I pushed aside a drooping branch, the movement released some of the fir’s wonderful perfume. I inhaled deeply and closed my eyes. The smell conjured up memories of a warm cup of tea on a cool morning in the Boundary Waters. Balsam fir tea is a lovely beverage, with several potential medicinal uses. I distinctly recall my ethnobotany professor, Ojibwe Elder Joe Rose, mentioning balsam fir as a laxative. If I remember right, he told us that when horses in the old logging camps would get constipated, they’d get a dose of balsam fir. And then, “Don’t stand behind them!” Joe warned. Luckily, it doesn’t seem to affect humans quite that abruptly.
One of balsam’s gentler benefits is its high levels of vitamin C. In fact, there’s a possibility that balsam was used to prevent and cure scurvy, instead of or in addition to northern white cedar, the tree we usually think of as Arbor Vitae.
After that fragrance- and memory-filled moment, my eyes opened just inches away from the twig. Two layers of needles spread out on either side. Each tiny sprig of green was flattened in cross-section. I knew from experience that if I picked off a single needle, I couldn’t make it roll between my fingers. Spruce needles, in contrast, are square in cross section, and spinning them between your thumb and forefinger is a nice way to fidget.
“Firs are flat and friendly,” was one of the first mnemonics I learned in botany class. As we gained confidence with technical terms, the professor added “and they have racing stripes like a fir-rari!” It’s true that if you turn a fir needle over, there are two light-colored stripes spanning its length. These are the stomata, which are the pores that allow carbon dioxide in, and oxygen and water vapor out.
I stepped back to admire the tree again. Just taller than me, it would be the perfect size to decorate for a home. To achieve this height might have taken it nine or ten years. But it could live 200 more, if all goes well. The tiny seed it grew from must have found plenty of water in the soil, and just enough light to grow. Balsams are one of the most shade-tolerant trees in the whole forest, and a seedling only needs 10 percent of full sunlight to get started and 50 percent of full sunlight to thrive.
While firs are synonymous with the holidays, they do lack one important decorative item: cones. That’s because the seed that produced this fir grew in a cone with deciduous scales, a cone that fell apart. If you are lucky enough to visit a fir grove in early fall, the mature trees will have clusters of beautiful, upright, purple cones perched near their crown.
Chickadees, nuthatches, squirrels, and porcupines eat the seeds. Moose, deer, and grouse eat the needles. Hungry red squirrels nip buds off the tips of twigs and throw the rest onto my early spring ski tracks. Balsam firs are important wildlife trees all year round.
The trail brought me home, red-cheeked and happy. On the front table sat my Charlie Brown Christmas tree—a scraggly little balsam fir that I felt no guilt about cutting. But when I closed my eyes and inhaled, it too became the “perfect” tree.
|Sometimes it's nice to look at a familiar plant from a different perspective. Photo by Emily Stone.|