In wilderness survival knowing how to utilize trees like the balsam fir can enhance your ability to survive. Uses for the balsam fir tree for wilderness survival are so numerous that a complete inventory could easily fill a small book. If you are lucky enough to live in balsam fir (Abies balsamea) country then you have a readily available supply of medicines, fire starting aids and fire burning materials, food, and shelter making materials. You can consider this tree an integral part of your survival gear. All you need is the knowledge necessary to tap into this free natural resource. Because the uses of balsam fir trees for wilderness survival are so extensive, in this Survival Topic we will concentrate on just one small part of the tree; the pitch of the balsam fir, which can be readily harvested and utilized in a variety of ways.
How to Identify Balsam Fir Trees
The range of balsam fir extends through most of central and eastern Canada and southward to Minnesota, Maine and the Appalachian Mountains to West Virginia. In this area balsam firs are the most commonly used species for Christmas trees and wreaths.
Identifying characteristics of Balsam Fir trees include:
- Flattened needles that are about 3/4 inch (2cm) long and blunt or notched at the end. The balsam fir needles are dark green on top and silver-blue on the undersides.
- The green resinous cones stand vertically and are two or three inches (5cm to 8cm long).
- The bark is grayish-brown and smooth with raised blisters containing a sticky resin or pitch.
- Height of up to 80-ft (24-meters) with a very narrow crown.
- Prefers well drained acidic soils and cold climates.
About Balsam Fir Pitch
A distinguishing characteristic of the balsam fir tree is its raised bark blisters that dot its otherwise smooth bark. These blisters contain a clear, sticky pitch or resin that protects the tree in a variety of ways:
- Entrapping insects should they pierce the bark.
- Closing wounds should the bark be broken.
- Fighting microorganisms, fungi, etc that might try to invade the tree through the wound.
These properties of balsam fir pitch can be used by the human wilderness survivor in much the same way as the tree itself. This repurposing of natures materials for our own use is a distinguishing characteristic of the best survival experts; they observe and adapt the survival strategies and materials used by the local plants and animals to their own needs. While other coniferous trees such as pines and spruces exude pitch from wounds that is also useful for wilderness survival, pitch from balsam firs has some advantages:
- Thousands of years before modern packaging, balsam firs have pitch contained in easy to access blister packs.
- No need to find a wounded tree in order to obtain pitch; nearly every balsam fir tree has accessible pitch. Simply open a blister.
- The outer covering of the bark blisters keeps the pitch pure by protecting it from insects and foreign matter.
- The blister packs of balsam fir pitch stay resinous and runny while awaiting your use – even in cold weather that renders other pitches hard and brittle.
Harvesting Balsam Fir Pitch
To harvest balsam fir pitch from the tree, simply open the blisters using a sharp stick or knife. Be careful not to pop the blister since putting its contents under pressure may cause the pitch to suddenly shoot out and enter an eye or get all over your clothing and gear. Balsam fir pitch is clear, runny, and very sticky with a pleasant balsam smell that reminds me of Christmas. At very low temperatures the pitch remains unfrozen but becomes cloudy and takes on a gel-like consistency. In the picture you can see I have opened a balsam fir pitch blister using a corner of my tomahawk. The clear pitch is flowing down the blade and can be collected into a container or used on the spot. I like to carry a couple of small closable containers to hold harvests of opportunity. As I travel in the wilderness I make sure to replenish my stock of balsam fir pitch for use at home as it has a variety of excellent applications as outlined below.
Medicinal Uses of Balsam Fir Pitch
Of special importance to wilderness survival and wilderness medicine in particular are the great antiseptic and healing properties of balsam fir pitch. Special substances in the pitch that protect the tree from infection and aid in the healing process will do the same for you. An easy way to take advantage of the medicinal benefits of balsam fir pitch is to simply dab it on cuts, abrasions, sores, and wounds as a salve. The pitch will form a protective cover that aids in healing and destroys organisms that would otherwise find the area a hospitable place to grow and multiply. Because the balsam fir pitch is so sticky, it can be used to glue cuts together so that the healing process is accelerated and debris cannot enter. In the winter when chapped lips are a concern, I often stop at a nearby balsam fir for pitch. When smeared on lips it creates a protective barrier that keeps body moisture in and helps prevent chapping. On already chapped lips the balsam fir pitch will also aid in the healing process. Medicinal uses of pitch from balsam firs used by Native Americans and early settlers to the region include:
- Painkiller or analgesic
- Antiseptic Salve for the healing of wounds such as cuts, abrasions, burns, sores, and chapped areas.
- Prevention of chapped lips.
As a warm tea mixed with water or eating directly:
- Bronchitis, cough, consumption, and sore thoats.
- Inflammation of mucus membranes.
- Colds and flu
- Urogenital ailments such as gonorrhea and vaginal infections
- Heart ailments
- Rheumatism or inflammation and pain in muscles and joints
- Scurvy Ulcers
- As an inhalant for headaches
- Balsam Fir Pitch as Food
Balsam fir pitch can be used as a tonic and quick pick-me-up when consumed. I find its taste very enjoyable, though you probably would not want to eat more than a few dabs at a time. If I feel a need for some quick energy, I often stop at a nearby balsam fir to open a blister or two for a snack. The highly concentrated oleo resin in the pitch gives it an oily, buttery consistency that I find enjoyable. I have not been able to find information on the caloric value of balsam fir pitch, but I suspect it is quite high in order to give its boost of energy during strenuous activity. Rather than smear the sticky balsam fir pitch on my teeth, I dab it on my tongue and swallow it directly. Saliva and body heat help dissolve it. The aroma of balsam fir also helps my mental state as it reminds me of good times in the forest and Christmas past as a young boy growing up in the rugged mountains of northern New Hampshire. This mental pick-me-up cannot be underestimated as a wilderness survival resource when times are tough.
Balsam Fir Pitch Fire Starting Aid
Building a fire in the wilderness is not always easy. The most common problem is damp wood and tinder. A glob of balsam fir pitch burns for an extended period of time. If your tinder is damp it is an easy matter to break open several balsam fir bark blisters and smear the pitch on the tinder. The combination should burn long enough to dry out and ignite the tinder, which in turn will start the main fire. You can also smear the pitch on cattail down, dryer lint, or cotton balls in the same way you use petroleum jelly as a fire starting aid. The fluffy material catches the initial spark from a Fire Steel or match and carries it to the pitch, which in turn burns long and hot.
Other Uses for Balsam Fir Pitch
There are a number of additional uses for balsam fir pitch and if you come up with any others feel free to send them in and I will post them here:
- As an adhesive for a wide variety of purposes including fletching arrows, repairing equipment, and even gluing cut skin together.
- A waterproofing agent, for example the seams of watercraft.
- Smear on a hardhat to entrap pesky insects while working outdoors.
- For its pleasant scent.
Should you get sticky pitch on your hands and do not have the immediate means to remove it, you can simply cover the pitch with dirt or sand. This will adhere to the pitch and prevent it from sticking to everything you touch.
The next time you are in the forest and happen upon a balsam fir tree, take a good look at the pitch containing blisters on its bark. Knowing how to use balsam firs and their pitch is an excellent wilderness survival skill.
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