Balsam Fir
Balsam Fir
Note the pitch bubbles in the bark
Note the pitch bubbles in the bark

Balsam Fir, Abies balsamea

Family: Pinaceae, the Pine Family

Description: Native evergreen tree. Bark with prominent sap-filled blisters, seed cones erect, needles have whitened undersurface, flat, blunt needles do not roll between fingers (spruce needles do). Four-pronged branch tips, three flat above and one below.

Abundance: Common

Habitat: Uplands, wetlands, moist woods

Plant Parts Used: Bark, sap, leaves, boughs

Medicine: Cuts, bruises, rashes, burns, tense muscles, colds, sinus infections, urinary tract infections, and flu. Leaves are high in vitamin C.

Food: Casual tea.

Other: Fire starter, boughs used in outdoor shelters

Ray uses fir pitch for a multitude of ailments. He either gathers the pitch from the blisters on the bark or strips the bark off the lower limbs, which the tree will shed as it grows. He places that bark in a jar covered with oil and leaves the jar in the sun for six weeks. Then he strains out that bark and fills the jar of oil with freshly stripped bark and waits another several weeks. Depending on the strength he desires, he will continue this process many times to concentrate this pitch oil. He uses this diluted pitch (or the pitch straight from the tree) for minor cuts, wounds, and bruises.  For diaper rashes, he applies a salve of the pitch. For deeper cuts, he puts the pitch directly on the wound. He also applies a salve of fir pitch to relieve tense muscles. John also recommended making a wound plaster out of balsam fir pitch. Ray uses Larix laricina pitch, also called tamarack, larch, or hackamatack by my northern Maine relatives, in the same way he uses balsam fir pitch—primarily for wounds, rashes, and cuts. Deb makes a warming, relaxing massage oil for achy muscles by infusing the bark in olive oil, bringing that up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit and letting it infuse for approximately two weeks.

Ray swears that every evergreen in the northeast is somehow edible “except for yew.” The needles of fir, spruce, and pine contain large amounts of vitamin C. According to a 1943 article from the Canadian Medical Association Journal, per 100 grams of fresh needles, balsam fir contains 217 mg of vitamin C. On average, evergreens contain three to five times more vitamin C than the best oranges.

For a casual or medicinal tea, Ray puts a handful of needles in a pot, but “never, never, never boil it or it will turn to turpentine.” Another way to make this tea is easily done by bringing water to a boil and then taking it off the heat for a few minutes so that it is not too hot that it might destroy the desired compounds in the needles. Pour the hot water over the needles in a cup or pot, cover it, and let it steep until it reaches the desired strength.

On a backcountry skiing trip, Sue burnt her leg when a pot of boiling water fell on her fleece pants and long johns. Someone quickly took down her pants—the fleece had absorbed the water and her whole thigh was blistered at once. They put snow packs on it, which momentarily stopped the pain. She tried burn cream, but that hurt. She remembered hearing about spruce being used for burns, but only fir grew nearby. So they collected fir boughs and made a tea to make a compress of it. She took bandanas and soaked the cloths in the fir tea and packed it around her leg and covered it with plastic. She kept a bottle of the strong tea and kept her leg moist. She was able to continue skiing for four and a half more days. She used the fir for a week; after that the burn area under the fir compress developed small pimples, a sign of growing sensitivity or allergy to the fir. Once she returned home she stopped using the fir and used aloe to help with the last bit of healing.

Sue also finds fir boughs extremely effective for treating sinus infections. Using this method, one acquaintance of Sue’s canceled an appointment to have her sinuses scraped out. Sue says to take water with a few boughs in it and bring to a simmer. Take off the heat and breathe in the steam with a towel over your head. Balsam fir is antibacterial so it helps kill the infection as well as soothe it. She also suggests breathing through a hot face cloth soaked in this strong tea for a similar effect. Deb, too, has used a balsam steam for treating congestion, sinus problems, and head colds, though she sometimes finds that leaving boughs to steep in a pot on the woodstove can turn them to turpentine, so instead prefers white cedar for that purpose. Sue has also used fir needle tea in treating urinary tract infections.

Balsam fir has been used as an antiseptic. The pitch can be used externally for cuts and internally as a tea for sore throats and bladder infections. The Anticosti have treated sore throats by taking an infusion of the sap. Mi’kmaqs of northern Maine and New Brunswick have used the gum to treat burns. The steam from the fir bough tea is used as an inhalation for infected lungs and sinuses. This tea also acts as an antiseptic wash for cuts, sores, and cool analgesic compresses for burns. The Iroquois, Menominee, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, and Cree have used balsam fir as a cold remedy.

Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.

References:

  • Brooks, John. Personal Interview. 28 Nov. 2010.
  • Hunter, G., and J. Tuba. “Notes on Rose Hips and Evergreens as Sources of Vitamin C.” Canadian Medical Association Journal1 (1943): 30-32. Web. 1 Dec. 2010.
  • Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono, Me.: University of Maine, 2010. Print.
  • Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Medicinal Plants: an Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Portland, Or.: Timber, 2009. Print.
  • Reitze, Raymond and Nancy. Personal interview. 8, 15 Oct. 2010.
  • Soule, Deb. Personal interview. 4 Feb. 2011.
  • Szwed, Sue. Personal interview. 12 Nov. 2010.
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