About Bracted Balsam
Nothing says Christmas quite like a freshly cut, well-pruned and fragrant fir tree, lovingly decorated by family members and enjoyed throughout the holiday season. Many people think immediately of Fraser or balsam firs when they think of Christmas trees. Recently, a closely related variety of balsam fir, the bracted balsam (Abies balsamea var. phanerolepsis) is growing in popularity with many Christmas tree growers and their customers.
Jim and Karen Verboom operate Nova Tree Company, based in Truro, Nova Scotia. Jim says they first became interested in the bracted balsam in 1986, when the North American Christmas Tree Growers association held a meeting in Halifax, NS. “Someone was talking about bracted balsam, and we realized that we had the same variety growing on the Eastern shore of Nova Scotia, and within several kilometres of the shoreline, where regular balsam doesn’t grow well,” he says. “We found a good stand of the trees and began collecting seed to offer as part of our catalogue. Despite being higher priced than other seed varieties, it’s been steadily growing in popularity.”
Botanists and plant taxonomists sometimes quibble over the classification of bracted balsam fir, with some people maintaining that it is a separate species while others assert that both it and the Fraser fir are varieties of the original balsam fir. Bracted balsam is found in cooler areas than common balsam will often grow, including Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, extending through Quebec and into Ontario in Canada. In the United States, bracted balsam is a tree of the northeast, extending as far south as West Virginia and Virginia.
For the horticulturist, the bracted balsam found in the Canaan Valley of West Virginia is a fascinating example of an ecospecies or ecotype. Ecotypes are variations from the original species occurring naturally only in specific growing conditions and regions. Those bracted balsams growing higher in the mountains of West Virginia are growing in significantly different conditions than those found further north, and were given the common name Canaan fir, even though both they and the bracted fir have the same botanical name. The botanical varietal name phanerolepsis means conspicuous scales, referring to the fact that the bracts of the fir’s seeds can be seen extending from its cones while the cones are still closed.
The cone difference is not the only morphological difference between regular balsam and bracted balsam fir. The needles spread out around the twigs and branches, giving a “bottlebrush” appearance rather than the more horizontal placement of standard balsam firs. The trees can vary somewhat in needle colour, ranging from deep green to blue-green, with silverish-white stomatic bands on the undersides of their needles. However, bracted balsam trees share the same traditional pyramidal shape of many firs, often quite densely branched and full before they are pruned.
What’s the appeal of the bracted balsam for Christmas tree growers and nurseries? According to Jim Verboom of Nova Tree Seed, the tree’s toughness makes it an excellent choice for more northerly locales. “This tree breaks its buds later in the spring than its related species, so it’s more resistant to frost injury,” he says. “It also grows in areas that aren’t well suited for Fraser or straight balsam firs, including along coastal areas.” Although tolerant of wet soil, the bracted balsam does best in well-drained, humus-rich, acidic soils that receive adequate moisture.
Rick Eastman operates Western Maine Nurseries, supplying evergreen seedlings and plug seedlings to Christmas tree growers, garden centre nurseries, and others looking for large quantities of evergreen seedlings. “The bracted balsam has a full bottle-brush needle structure, which makes for a fuller looking tree,” he says. “Also, the colour is as good or better than Fraser fir, in my opinion.” He says his customers are getting more familiar with the bracted balsam, and he feels that the fast-growing tree “is the tree to have in the Northeast where you cannot grow Fraser fir.”
Jim Nickelson of Needlefast Evergreens in Michigan also likes the bracted balsam because of its natural tendency to a fuller needle structure on its branches. “This makes the tree more appealing after trimming for its Christmas tree appearance,” he says. “As a nursery that supplies planting stock to other Christmas tree growers, we are noticing that more people are asking for the bracted balsam, wanting to try them out.” The Verbooms hope this is a trend that continues for years to come.