Wednesday, December 31, 2008

He-Balsam and She-Balsam


He-Balsam (red spruce) on left, She-Balsam (Fraser fir) on right.

How can you tell a he-balsam from a she-balsam?

Several months ago I related a yarn spun by Wiley Oakley, the Roamin’ Man of the Mountains. Oakley had spoofed some unsuspecting visitors by convincing them that potatoes grew from the roots of the balsam tree, but he was quick to qualify that statement:

Only the she-balsams growed potatoes. Us mountain people call the spruce 'he-balsam,' and the mountain balsam we call 'she-balsam.'

I’ve heard of he-balsams and she-balsams for many years, although fewer and fewer people use those terms to describe the conifers growing on our tallest mountains. In Our Southern Highlanders, Horace Kephart expanded on the confusing botanical nomenclature of the Southern Appalachians:

What the mountaineers call hemlock is the shrub leucothoe. The hemlock tree is named spruce-pine, while spruce is he-balsam, balsam itself is she-balsam, laurel is ivy, and rhododendron is laurel. In some places pine needles are called twinkles.

Twinkles? That’s one I’d never heard.


He-Balsam (red spruce)



She-Balsam (Fraser fir)

Back to he and she, though. To put it as simply as possible, the red spruce is the he-balsam, while the Fraser fir is the she-balsam. Donald Culross Peattie, in A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, explained the origin of the names:

The mountain people recognize the intimate association of the Spruce and Fir by calling them respectively the He-Balsam and the She –Balsam. Observing that the Fir has swollen blisters of resin under the bark, they fancifully compared them to breasts filled with milk; hence the She-Balsam. And supposing that a mate must be found for the She-Balsam and noting that its companion tree had no resin blisters, they named it the He-Balsam.

Near the highest point of the Blue Ridge Parkway, you’ll find the trail to the summit of Richland Balsam Mountain. A trail guide offers another distinction between he and she:

The term "Balsam" is commonly applied to Fraser Fir and Red Spruce by Southern Highlanders. The spruce, with its rough bark and prickly needles like a man's beard, is sometimes called "He-Balsam", while the smooth barked fir with its shiny flat needles is called "She-Balsam."

It is easy to overlook the differences, but after a little time spent becoming familiar with these trees, their respective identities become more recognizable. Peattie provides a method other than appearance to distinguish the trees:

To tell the "He" from "She," when you find yourself among these two companion trees, crush the needles in your finges and discover the two distinct odors - the orange-rind aroma of the Spruce, and the balsam-pillow smell of the Fir.


He-Balsam (red spruce)



She-Balsam (Fraser fir)


Another clue for differentiating the trees is to look for their cones. On the spruce, or he-balsam, the cones hang down from the limbs, while on the fir, or she-balsam, the cones rise from the limbs.

In Southern Wild Flowers and Trees, Alice Lounsberry makes the point that the designations of "he" and "she" have nothing to do with the reproductive systems of the trees:

It is a strange conceit of the mountaineers in the Alleghanies to call this tree the " He Balsam," a name indiscriminately applied by them to both the black spruce and the red spruce, P. rubens, which grows in southern Virginia. And thinking perhaps that it should have a mate of their choosing they call the beautiful silver fir, the " She Balsam.'' The spruces bear, however, on the same tree both staminate and pistillate flowers, a fact perhaps not appreciated when these vernacular names were bestowed.

Lounsberry commented on the uses of each tree:

Long ago, also, the Indians taught the Europeans to boil the young twigs [of the red spruce or he-balsam] with honey and use the extract in a brew which produces spruce beer….

The clear and thin liquid, balsam, as it is called, which exudes from the blisters on the trunk and tips of the branches [of the Fraser fir or she-balsam], is regarded as useful by the natives to cure cuts and sores…


She-Balsam (Fraser fir)


In Heart of the Alleghanies, Zeigler and Grosscup described a walk through a spruce-fir forest:

We now reached the edge of the great forests of the balsam firs,—forests which mantle nearly every peak above 6,000 feet in altitude in North Carolina. The balsam is one of the most beautiful of evergreens. When transplanted, as it is occasionally, to the valleys of this region, it forms an ornamental tree of marked appearance, with its dark green, almost black, foliage, its straight, tapering trunk and symmetrical body. In the rich dark soil in some of the lofty mountain gaps it attains to a height of 150 feet, and in certain localities growing so thickly together as to render it almost impossible for the hunters to follow the bear through its forests. It is of two sorts, differing in many particulars, and termed the black and white or male and female balsams.

Every grove is composed of both black and white balsams, and no single tree is widely separated from its opposite sex. The black balsam has a rougher bark, more ragged limbs, and darker foliage than the white. The latter is more ornamental, with its straight-shooting branches and smooth trunk; it bears blisters containing an aromatic resinous substance of peculiar medicinal properties. A high price is paid for this balsam of firs, but it seems that the price is not in proportion to the amount of time and labor necessary to be expended in puncturing the blisters for their contents, for very little of it is procured by the mountaineers. It covers every high pinnacle of the Balsam mountains. On some slopes however, extending only a few hundred yards down from the top before blending, and disappearing into the deciduous forests; but on other slopes, like those descending to the west prongs of the Pigeon, it reaches downward for miles from the summit of the mountains, forming the wildest of wooded landscapes.

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