and Their Stories /1
The Fir trees by the Westmount Public Library
By Michael Walsh
To be one with the trees is to know Life within your own spirit
Cherokee Nation’s Chief Sequoyah
One of our favourite weekend pastimes is spending time in the Westmount Public Library, as well as enjoying the exterior landscaping that contributes to the building’s overall beauty. Many of the trees planted by the park’s custodians date back generations. For instance, have you noticed the row of five Fir trees, outside the library’s park entrance, that tower over the building? These are Firs by virtue of their short, blunt and flat needles that are attached to the branches by a small stem. A simple method of distinguishing a Fir from a Spruce is to try and roll one of their needles with your fingers – the flat needles of a Fir won’t roll; however, those of the Spruce will.
What is remarkable is that these trees have survived a massive reconfiguration of the park in the 1960s, as well as the demolition of the children’s library in 1995, during the reconstruction and renovation of the library’s original 1899 Findlay building.
Looking closely, one call tell this row of Firs comprises two different species: two Balsam Firs (Abies balsamea) – also known Balm of Gilead, Northern Balsam, Silver Pine, and Blister Fir — and three White Firs (Abies concolor). The Balsam Fir’s needles are unique in that their underside contains white lines which comprise the tree’s stomata (pores) that allow the leaf’s air exchange.
The Balsam Fir is the provincial tree of New Brunswick (in case you are wondering, Quebec’s provincial tree is the Yellow Birch). The resin of the Balsam Fir contains oleoresin that has a refractive index similar to glass. As such, it is used within optical equipment and in the manufacturing of medicinal components and varnishes.
The Balsam Fir has the ability to retain its needles and, coupled with a lasting fragrance, has made it one of the favourite species used as Christmas trees. In fact, Sorel Québec, holds the distinction of the first recorded Christmas tree in North America. On Christmas Eve 1781, Baron Frederick-Adolphus and Baroness Riedesel hosted a traditional German party that comprised a Balsam Fir decorated with candles and fruit.
Interestingly, Westmount in 1896 was home to one of the first Christmas trees using electrically lit decorations. This was followed by retail stores using lit Christmas trees to attract customers.
The neighbouring White Firs (Abies concolor) are easily identified by their flattened silvery needles that curve up from the stem. (Also known as the White Balsam Fir, Pumpkin Tree, Mountain Balsam and Downy-Cone Fir). The trees originate from the Rocky Mountains that extend from Canada to California.
Surprisingly, North American bears make their winter dens inside large, diseased White Firs that contain a core of dry dead wood (“heart-rot”). However, the popularity of “salvage logging” is having a major impact on the animals’ habitat.
Native Americans have realized the medical value of White Firs for centuries. For example, an infusion of the foliage taken and used as a bath by the Laguna Pueblo native Americans is used to alleviate rheumatism. In addition, the tree’s bark contains compounds that have anti-tumor properties.
Finally, Native Americans attach a spiritual importance to Fir trees that permeates all aspects of their beliefs and culture — the extent of which is summarized as follows:
Sit and lean against the trunk of an old Fir and practice being present in his midst. Put your head close to the bark… can you hear him breathing? Open yourself up and imagine that you and the tree are one, gently swaying together in a slow dance.
Images: Michael Walsh
Feature image: Patricia Dumais
Michael Walsh is a long-time Westmount resident and a higher education IT professional. A mycologist and statistician by training. While not at work, he walks his dog and tries to impart the beauty and hidden history Westmount has to offer to residents and visitors alike through his blog at Westmount Overlooked.