Herb: Balsam Fir

Latin name: Abies balsamea

Synonyms: Pinus balsamea

Family: Pinaceae (Pine Family)

Medicinal use of Balsam Fir:

The resin obtained from the balsam fir (see "Uses notes" below) has been used throughout the world and is a very effective antiseptic and healing agent. It is used as a healing and analgesic protective covering for burns, bruises, wounds and sores. It is also used to treat sore nipples and is said to be one of the best curatives for a sore throat. The buds, resin, and/or sap are used in folk remedies for treating cancers, corns, and warts. The resin is also antiscorbutic, diaphoretic, diuretic, stimulant and tonic. It is used internally in propriety mixtures to treat coughs and diarrhoea, though taken in excess it is purgative. A warm liquid of the gummy sap was drunk as a treatment for gonorrhoea. A tea made from the leaves is antiscorbutic. It is used in the treatment of coughs, colds and fevers. The leaves and young shoots are best harvested in the spring and dried for later use. This plant was widely used medicinally by various North American Indian tribes. The resin was used as an antiseptic healing agent applied externally to wounds, sores, bites etc., it was used as an inhalant to treat headaches and was also taken internally to treat colds, sore throats and various other complaints.

Description of the plant:


15 m
(49 feet)



Habitat of the herb:

Low swampy grounds where it is often the major component of forests. Also found on well-drained hillsides.

Edible parts of Balsam Fir:

Inner bark - cooked. It is usually dried, ground into a powder and then used as a thickening in soups etc or mixed with cereals when making bread. Fir bark is a delight to chew in winter or early spring, slightly mucilaginous and sweetish, better raw than cooked. Another report says that it is an emergency food and is only used when all else fails. An aromatic resinous pitch is found in blisters in the bark. When eaten raw it is delicious and chewy. Another report says that the balsam or pitch, in extreme emergency, forms a highly concentrated, though disagreeable, food. An oleoresin from the pitch is used as a flavouring in sweets, baked goods, ice cream and drinks. Tips of young shoots are used as a tea substitute.

Other uses of the herb:

The balsamic resin "Balm of Gilead" or "Canada Balsam" according to other reports is obtained during July and August from blisters in the bark or by cutting pockets in the wood. Another report says that it is a turpentine. The term Canada Balsam is a misnomer because balsams are supposed to contain benzoic and cinnamic acids, both absent from the Canada oleoresin. Turpentine is also a misnomer, implying that the oleoresin is entirely steam volatile. Actually it contains 70 - 80% resin, only 16 - 20% volatile oil. Canada Balsam yields 15 - 25% volatile oil, the resin being used for caulking and incense. It is used medicinally and in dentistry, also in the manufacture of glues, candles and as a cement for microscopes and slides - it has a high refractive index resembling that of glass. The pitch has also been used as a waterproofing material for the seams of canoes. The average yield is about 8 - 10 oz per tree. The resin is also a fixative in soaps and perfumery. "Turpentine" is usually collected during July-August by breaking the turpentine blisters into small metal cans with sharp-pointed lids. Trees are then allowed to recuperate for 1 - 2 years before being harvested again. The leaves and young branches are used as a stuffing material for pillows etc - they impart a pleasant scent and also repel moths. The leaves contain an average of 0.65% essential oil, though it can go up to 1.4% or even higher. One analysis of the essential oils reports 14.6% bornyl acetate, 36.1% b-pinene, 11.1% 3-carene, 11.1% limonene, 6.8% camphene, and 8.4% a-pinene. To harvest the oil, it would appear that the branches should be snipped off younger trees in early spring. Fifteen year old trees yield 70% more leaf oil than 110-year-old trees, oil yields are highest in January - March and September, they are lowest from April to August. A thread can be made from the roots. Wood - light, soft, coarse grained, not strong, not very durable. Weighs 24lb per cubic foot. Used mainly for pulp, it is not used much for lumber except in the manufacture of crates etc. The wood is commercially valuable for timber even though it is relatively soft, weak, and perishable. Balsam fir is used in the US for timber and plywood, and is the mainstay of the pulp wood industry in the Northeast. The wood, which is rich in pitch, burns well and can be used as a kindling

Propagation of Balsam Fir:

Seed - sow early February in a greenhouse or outdoors in March. Germination is often poor, usually taking about 6 - 8 weeks. Stratification is said to produce a more even germination so it is probably best to sow the seed in a cold frame as soon as it is ripe in the autumn. Stored seeds should be moist stratified 14 - 28 days at 1 - 5C, though fresh seed may be sown in autumn without stratification, with target seedling densities in the nursery ca 450 - 500/m2, often mulched with sawdust. The seed remains viable for up to 5 years if it is well stored. When large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them on for at least their first winter in pots. Plant them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts. Of slow initial growth, the stock is usually outplanted as 2- to 3-year-old seedlings or 3- to 4-year-old transplants Alternatively, if you have sufficient seed, it is possible to sow in an outdoor seedbed. One report says that it is best to grow the seedlings on in the shade at a density of about 550 plants per square metre whilst another report says that they are best grown on in a sunny position. Trees often self-layer in the wild, so this might be a means of increasing named varieties in cultivation.

Cultivation of the herb:

Low swampy grounds where it is often the major component of forests. Also found on well-drained hillsides.

Known hazards of Abies balsamea:

The oleoresin (Canada balsam) is reported to produce dermatitis when applied as perfume. The foliage has also induced contact dermatitis.

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.