Around this time of year many people in Nova Scotia are beginning to think about getting a Christmas tree. While artificial trees are certainly growing in popularity, judging by the number of artificial ones I see in the flyers that arrive in the mailbox at this time of year, it is hard to compete with the beauty, and smell, of a real Christmas tree.
Over the years I have seen a variety of trees used as Christmas trees, ranging from spruce and pine to white birch. However, in most homes in Nova Scotia, if they have a real Christmas tree, it will be a balsam fir.
Balsam fir is native to Eastern and Central Canada and the Eastern United States. It grows very well here and, while New Brunswick uses the balsam fir as their provincial tree, Lunenburg County here in Nova Scotia claims to be the balsam fir capital of Canada. Balsam is big business and in Nova Scotia alone recent figures show that overall the industry generates $50 million yearly and supports 4,000 jobs.
While balsam fir is the tree of choice here in Eastern Canada I was recently reminded that there are other species of trees out there our balsam has to compete with. My wife and I were in Toronto last week and, while we were there, we had an opportunity to tour a Christmas tree lot. While I was expecting to see balsam fir I also found two kinds of pine along with a few species that were new to me. The pine trees were white pine and Scots, also known as Scotch pine, both species I was familiar with, and have actually planted in the past. The ones I had never seen before were Serbian spruce and Fraser fir. The Serbian spruce is native to Bosnia while Fraser fir is native to the Appalachian Mountains region of the Southeastern United States. Both species make very nice Christmas trees but I was glad to hear that balsam fir remains a favourite in Toronto.
While balsam fir is perhaps best known as a source of Christmas trees it has other benefits, and products. One of them is lumber and pulpwood as well as serving as both a home and food source for many species of wildlife. Birds ranging from grouse to chickadees nest in its branches while moose and deer feed on the tender needles. Birds and squirrels feed on its cones which, unlike those of spruce trees, grow upright.
Another byproduct of the balsam fir is the one that gives it its name – balsam. Young balsam fir are characterized by blisters on the tree trunk which contain balsam sap or resin. This serves as the source of several products. One I am familiar with is known as Canada balsam.
Many years ago, when I was in university, we used to prepare microscope slides of various tissues as part of our studies. Once the tissue section were set on glass slides we covered the sample with a thin piece of glass known as a coverslip. This was cemented to the microscope slide using Canada balsam. The advantage of this material was that it did not crystallize and reflected light the same way glass did so there was no distortion when examining the tissue sample.
I don’t know if they still use Canada balsam for this purpose but the resin continues to be available as an essential oil which people attribute a variety of health benefits to. So, when you sit back and enjoy your real balsam fir Christmas tree this year also consider the many benefits this versatile tree provides us.
Don MacLean is an outdoor writer and biologist who lives in Pictou County.