Harvesting Balsam Fir with Future Generations in Mind – 2024 Guide

Scattered throughout Minnesota’s forests is the pristine balsam fir tree. Balsam fir, also known by its more formal Latin name, Abies balsamea, is native to North America. The species has been around for centuries and enjoyed for generations. It is a unique tree that emits a delightful aroma. It grows best in cool, moist soil and loves the shade. You will often find balsam fir existing happily growing underneath other trees. The balsam fir wood is used in various products and is a significant commodity in the timber paper industry.

In addition to the wood from the trunk, the balsam is even better known for the lush boughs that hang glistening.  Balsam trees are some of the most eye-catching trees in the forest. Balsam boughs are the branches of the tree that can be trimmed and used in various holiday decorations. I am a wreath maker from rural Minnesota and my family depends on balsam fir for our subsistence.  We live in the Northwoods and handcraft fresh balsam fir wreaths for holiday decorations. My family loves our forests and our goal is to only use sustainably harvested balsam fir in our Christmas wreaths. Let’s explore the various ways we can assure that this tree is around for many generations to come.

The state of Minnesota was built by many pioneers. One of the most prominent types of the pioneer was the lumberjack. Minnesota is the home of the fabled Paul Bunyan lumberjack and Babe his Blue Ox. Lumberjacks came to Minnesota because of the profitable timber. Lumberjacks who settled this cold and snowy region in the late 1800s came with a purpose to put trees like balsam fir to good use. They wanted to work hard and earn a living by harvesting timber which helped build many houses and barns. Wreath making on a large scale from balsam fir’s boughs evolved many decades after the lumberjacks.  Today wreath makers dot the landscape in Minnesota.  Wreath making provides jobs for many locals and is a seasonal thriving industry.

To make sure our supply of balsam fir continues we need to manage all our forests properly. Smart forest management cannot be overstressed. It is so vital. Part of that is being aware of invasive species and blights that can harm trees. Being observant to what is happening in our local forests is our first line of defense and a very important component in good forest management. Expert foresters can identify these harmful bugs and take action if needed.  Invasive bugs that are caught early can sometimes be remedied by putting various restrictions in place to keep the bugs from spreading. Sometimes sprays can be used to solve the problem.  Poorly maintained forests are more prone to outbreaks. Keeping trees happy, healthy and vibrant should always be our goal.

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Another aspect of good balsam fir management is using logging to improve our timber stands. Most logging today does not involve clear-cutting.  Many still picture the lumberjack with his ax upon hearing the word logger. Today logging is sophisticated. Timber specialists run computerized machines with GPS capabilities. Computers in cut to length systems measure and log each tree harvested. Timber specialists following carefully laid out plans to create great habitat for wildlife and to maximize each tree’s potential. Care is used to minimize damaging any adjacent trees next to those being harvested.  Tracks are used to limit erosion and packing down soil. Sam McFadden a modern-day MN logger says, “Seed trees are often left on most timber sales to help spur the next generation.”  Old and diseased trees are removed.  Trees are often thinned out so those left can grow big and strong.  Trees growing too close together fight for sunlight, soil nutrients and water. Trees are a cycle like a crop. They have a longer life cycle than corn but still are cyclical with old-growth leaving us and new growth beginning.  Trees that are removed are cut into lengths and hauled on semi-trucks to local mills. ills make paper, cardboard boxes, lumber for building and much more.  Balsam fir wood specifically is used in papermaking, interior paneling for homes and lumber for framing construction projects.

We also have to educate our bough pickers. Bough pickers are the folks who actually go into the forest and trim the balsam fir’s branches taking a small portion of the greenery off the tree. Bough picking should never damage the tree. It’s simply like giving the tree a small haircut.

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First, we teach that we should never just strip the tree of its branches.  We only take the green tops off the tree. These tips range in length from 12” to 24” depending upon the size of the branch.  We leave part of each branch on the tree to create new growth.

Second, we emphasize that all local laws must be followed and proper permits obtained. We log all permit numbers and descriptions as required by law. Making sure balsam fir boughs are not being cut on someone’s land without permission is part of our job to keep bough cutting a noble art.

Finally, we also communicate the importance of having good equipment when picking balsam fir boughs. Having sharp clippers prevents from twisting the branch and causing long term damage to the tree. Also having tall pole extension clippers is very important.  Bough pickers should never be climbing trees or jumping and pulling down hard on the branches. Having twine with to properly bundle the boughs in 30-50 pound bundles will help with transportation.

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By working together and everyone doing their very best we will have a healthy balsam fir supply for centuries to come so check out www.jenswreaths.com  for more information.  The foresters have their role watching for those invasive bugs, the loggers keep the life cycle of the tree rolling along and the bough pickers give those trees a light trimming and all is well.  Minnesota’s forests are in good shape and we will keep them that way for our kids and grandkids.