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Westmount’s trees
and their stories /1

The Fir trees by the Westmount Public Library

By Michael Walsh

Previously published May 4, 2016

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.

Fir trees by Westmount Public LIbrary sapins westmountmag.ca

Fir trees by the Westmount Public Library

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 that comprise the tree’s stomata (pores) that allow the leaf’s air exchange.

The Balsam Fir is New Brunswick’s provincial tree (in case you are wondering, Quebec’s 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.

‘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.’

Balsam fir tree sapin westmountmag.ca

Balsam Fir tree

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.

white firs tree westmountmag.ca sapin

White Fir tree

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. Native Americans also 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

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Michael Walsh - WestmountMag.ca

Michael Walsh is a long-time Westmount resident. He is happily retired from nearly four decades in the field of higher education technology. A “professional student” by nature, his academic training, and publishing, include statistical methodology, mycology and animal psychology. During this period, he was also an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. Prior to moving to Montreal, he was contracted by the Ontario Ministry of Education evaluating bilingual primary and secondary school programs. Today, he enjoys spending time with his (huge) Saint Bernard while discovering the city’s past and sharing stories of the majestic trees that grace the parks and streets. He can be contacted at michaelld2003@hotmail.com or through his blog Westmount Overlooked


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There are 4 comments

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  1. Nancy Gross

    Just a brief note to say how much I enjoy reading Michael Walsh’s informative and entertaining articles. I look forward to seeing them in Westmount Magazine and appreciate their appearance on a regular basis. Happy reading!

  2. Jacqui Reid -walsh

    Thanks for republishing these older pieces. Reading them again when still in some sort of lockdown and travel restrictions makes me appreciate the writing style and the messages it conveys. I can imagine the trees outside the closed library vividly.

  3. Janet Boeckh

    Hello Michael, and thanks for your interesting articles, especially on the trees in Westmount Park. We know how sometimes trees can be hard to identify, especially with hybrids, which are often planted in parks. Would you please take another look at these 5 trees? My friend and I believe that they are not firs at all, but spruce (based on the needles, bark, and especially the cones, which are hanging down.) Fir cones typically point up, and remain closed long after the spruce cone scales have opened up. Given our shared interest in trees, we are wondering if you might like to get together for a walk in the park to discuss various aspects of park trees. I’d love to join you, but am currently out of town probably until early September, although my friend remains in Westmount. You’re welcome to contact me if this would be of interest.
    And thanks again for your great articles!


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