Fabulous Fir Trees
Long ago in the land of the Vikings the virtues of faith, hope, and love were sent from above to search the Earth. What were they looking for? A tree as high as hope, as great as love, and as sweet as charity. In the evergreen forest of the north they found a fir tree, illuminated by sparkling stars. It became the first Christmas tree.
In Door County, the virtues of the Balsam Fir (Abies balsamae) are well known. Like other fir trees, it is in the family Pinacea. The Balsam Fir’s genus name, Abies, means “to rise.” Its common name, fir, is from Old Norse (fyri) or perhaps old Danish (fyr).
Fragrant, Flat Needles
In Ephraim woodlands, the Balsam Fir tapers upwards. Each fragrant needle-like leaf is attached singly to a branch. The base of each flat needle looks like a suction cup. Hemlocks also have a flat needle but its base has a tiny stem, to which it attaches to the branch. “A hemlock has a stemlock” is a mnemonic device that helps identify the two trees. The word “stemlock” is Suess-like, a made up word to use as a memory prompt.
Balsam Firs are popular Christmas trees, carefully tended on tree farms to get just the right shape. Balsams grow in the Northeastern US and Central Canada. In the Southeast, the Fraser Fir is more commonly selected as a holiday tree.
According to the US Forest Service, Balsam Fir has a narrow range (7.3% of the eastern US). Its habitat is changing. Warming temperatures are impacting this less adaptable species. The predicted increase in precipitation in Northeast Wisconsin may not be enough to offset the heat. Sadly, this lovely fir may decline in Door County in the decades to come.
Meanwhile, take note of the fir’s stubborn will to survive by looking for “fir nurseries” on Door County hikes. When the lower branches of Balsam Firs lay on moist ground for a while, branches may strike root, resulting in a circle of fir babies around a Mama Balsam.
Fir Facts and Folklore
Firs hope to grow high and tall, 60 feet or more, so Druids considered them symbols of truth and honesty. They contain vitamin C, as do many members of the pine family. In addition, Native Americans and pioneers used the plant to treat rheumatism, headache, and sore throats. Until synthetics, fir resin was used in medicine and optics. And, who wouldn’t be soothed by the sweet aroma of a pillow stuffed with balsam needles?
As for non-human critters, Chipmunks and Crossbill birds (uncommon Ephraim winter visitors) eat Balsam Fir seeds while Yellow-rumped warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and other feathered friends use the thick green branches for nesting sites. Discover more fir facts here.
Crossbill Photo: Wikipedia
The Fir Tree
Birds play a minor role in a classic fir tree fairytale. Who remembers “The Fir-Tree” by Dane Hans Christian Andersen? First published on December 21, 1844, the original story is rather glum. Modern versions sugar coat the morality tale with a hopeful ending. Modern versions did the same with Andersen’s “Den lille havfrue.”
Photo: Hans Christian Andersen, Wikipedia.
“Rejoice in our presence!” cry the Air and the Sunlight. “Rejoice in thy own fresh youth!” But alas, a young Fir Tree is too preoccupied with growing up and experiencing imagined, better times to enjoy present delights. In the end the Fir is cast off as yesterday’s Christmas tree, left in a courtyard corner with weeds and nettles. Then – horrors – the tree is chopped up!
Whether your mood this Yule season is somber like Andersen’s original “Fir Tree” story or jolly and hopeful ‘tis the season for reflection. Either way, it wouldn’t hurt to fasten a sprig of Balsam Fir to the front door just in case, like the Celts did long ago, to ward off naughty sprites wandering Door County’s dark winter nights!
Climate Change Atlas, USDA Forest Service.
Simmons, Adelma Grenier. A Merry Christmas Herbal, Quill, New York, 1968.
Wikipedia, “Hans Christian Andersen”.
Submitted by Kathleen Harris, Educator