By Dawn Bazely

Canada, the boreal forests showing dark green in this satellite image
Canada, the boreal forests showing dark green.

Much of Canada’s landmass is dominated by the boreal forest ecosystem. The  characteristic tree species of the boreal biome are conifers such as pines, firs and spruces. Another boreal evergreen species, white cedar, has a range that extends further south, and it ‘s common in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Region to the south of the boreal.

In the United Kingdom, traditional Christmas greenery includes holly and ivy, but in Canada and the northeastern USA, balsam fir, eastern white cedar and red and white pine are very popular in Christmas decorations (below). Many Canadian homes have real, rather than fake greenery in them over the holiday season.

Balsam fir trees and mixed greenery decorations
Balsam fir trees and mixed greenery decorations

In Canada, balsam fir (Abies balsamea), which also makes excellent wreaths, is one of the most popular species of Christmas tree. Lauren, who works at Toronto Parks’ historic Colborne Lodge, built in 1837 by John Howard, can be seen at far left, with a traditional balsam fir wreath on the front door, and left, inside with a balsam fir tree.

Those are real candles on the tree, for which the decorative style is intended to evoke a Victorian Christmas. John Howard, one of Toronto’s first architects, engineers, and surveyors, acquired the land, which is now High Park, Toronto, and it was never actually farmed or built upon. His home, Colborne Lodge, a regency-style cottage, contains much of the original furniture that John Howard built. It’s open to the public and is decorated in Victorian holiday style for the seasons. My favourite fact about Colborne Lodge is that it had the first indoor toilet in the City of Toronto!

Distribution of Balsam Fir
Distribution of Balsam Fir


Balsam fir has a wide range from Alberta in the west, across to eastern Canada and the USA. (range map, above, adapted from Wikimedia: Elbert L. Little, Jr., U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service)

Cut Christmas trees for sale
Cut Christmas trees for sale

While cutting a tree from the local wood lot is still popular, these days, most trees are grown on Christmas tree farms. While you can buy them pre-cut, many families also head out to cut their own tree from a tree farm.

In addition to its popularity for Christmas decorations, balsam fir is also the source of resin, which oozes from blisters on the trunk. This sticky resin has many uses, including for mounting specimens for microscopy! Though, I understand that mostly synthetic resins are used these day. I can personally attest to the fact that resin on the hands and clothing is tough to get off, so my advice is, if you want to hug a tree, make it something other than a balsam fir!


About Colborne Lodge:

Balsam fir resin:

Christmas Tree Farmers of Ontario Association:

State of Canada’s Private Forests (1998):

On Twitter: @dawnbazely & @ColborneLodgeTO.

Editor’s note: for a general list of Christmas tree species see Advent Botany 2014 – Day 15

Advent Botany 2015 – Day 2

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