Balsam Fir

Abies balsamea

Balsam fir ranges across northeastern North America. Abies balsamea is a climax species, representing the end stage of ecological succession. It has relatively poor resistance to fire, and its seeds rarely last more than a year in the soil seedbank.

Biology

Balsam fir ranges across North America, from Newfoundland and Labrador though northern Quebec, Ontario, and Alberta, to southwestern Alberta and southern Manitoba in Canada; and the northeastern United States from northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan across northern New England and New York. When distilled, the chemical profile is dominated by beta-pinene, delta-3-carene, alpha-pinene, bornyl acetate, limonene, beta-phellandrene, and camphene.

Harvesting

The balsam fir essential oil is often harvested as a byproduct from the logging industry. When the trees are cut down for logging, they are de-limbed and then de-barked. The bark is used for distillation of essential oil.

Distribution

Balsam fir is popular in the aromatherapy and logging industry and is also commonly used as a Christmas tree. The wood is primarily used for wood pulp and light timber construction. However, these uses are not competing with essential oil production as the oil is frequently distilled from needles and bark stripped from tree trunks logged for fiber/timber. Thus, much of Balsam Fir oil production uses a byproduct of existing permitted and ongoing logging operations.

Sustainability

Currently, only a small percentage of bark and needles stripped from logged trees are collected for oil or biomass. The majority are left in large piles along the side of logging roads. The piles are undesirable as they prevent regeneration of all species across approximately 5% of the logged area. There is multi-stakeholder agreement that the piles are unhelpful and could be better utilized for their value in a circular economy.

Our Work

Dr. DeCarlo worked in Canada to determine the current status of balsam fir. Sustainability measures are already implemented due to overharvesting of the species for timber in the 1990s. While the collection of balsam fir for essential oil production is relatively sustainable as a byproduct of the logging industry, the species is especially susceptible to fire and pests, such as Spruce Budworm, Hemlock Looper, Blackheaded Budworm, and Balsam Wooly Adelgid, which can often kill the trees in a matter of a few years.

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