The Maine woods are well known for their beauty, wildlife and multitude of natural resources. Many people in Maine make their living doing something different each season. Come fall, in our area, after the blueberries are picked, its time for Christmas wreath season. Tippers gather the balsam from the trees, These balsam tips are then made into wreaths and centerpieces. Wreath making is still a cottage industry with most wreaths being made at home, then sold to wreath companies who decorate and ship them. Millions of wreaths are made here in Maine. We support our local wreath makers. We do not purchase the cheaper Canadian made wreaths.
Christmas wreaths are made from the tips of balsam fir tree branches. The tips are usually 12 to 20″ long. Sometimes the tips are broken into 2 or 3 pieces. Collecting these tips is called tipping. The tips are put together in bunches and wired onto a ring to make the wreath. A single-faced wreath means that the bunches of balsam are attached to only one side of the wreath ring. A double-faced wreath has the bunches of balsam built around both sides of the wreath. These wreaths are much fuller and much more desirable. All of our other wreaths are double-faced Christmas wreaths.
Cold fall weather causes the branches of the balsam fir trees to set. Setting seals the branch’s pores with wax. Once the branch is set, the needles will stay on the branch months after cutting. If tipping occurs before setting, the wreaths will be brown sticks before Christmas. It is usually safe to tip after November first and after a minimum of three consecutive 20-degree-F nights.
The lower branches are shaded, making them have a flat needle arrangement that is less full. The top branches dry faster and shed their needles earlier after cutting. The middle branches have a rounded or “bottle brush” needle arrangement. These are the best tips because they are full and will not shed early.
Only part of each branch is harvested so that the branch can produce another tip for a future harvest. It’s best to cut no more than half the foliage in a single year so that the tree can remain vigorous. For maximum tip production harvesting should be done every three years. Cutting from a tree every year will tap the vigor of the tree and eventually kill it. Our balsam products are harvested in a sustainable manner.
A Christmas wreath from Maine has become a holiday tradition for many families across America. Corporations, internet shoppers, early birds, last minute shoppers and just about anyone can take advantage of what a great gift idea a Christmas wreath or centerpiece is. A Christmas wreath is a decoration that appeals to a wide range of people, young and old, singles or couples and homeowners to name a few. A Christmas centerpiece is also a great gift idea that brings the greens and fragrance of the holidays inside.
At Maine Made Christmas we have been providing quality Christmas wreaths and centerpieces for the mail order customer for two decades. Freshly picked tips are handcrafted into wreaths and centerpieces which are then decorated with colorful weather resistant holiday decorations. Our wreath is then carefully packaged and shipped directly to the customer to ensure that you and your friends and family receive the best product possible.
The traditional Christmas wreath is made from evergreen boughs. Balsam fir is the evergreen of choice at Maine Made Christmas. Balsam fir (Albies balsamea) is a coniferous evergreen common in Maine. Coniferous means the tree reproduces by growing cones. Evergreen means the leaves which are small needles that line branches stay green all year. An evergreen does not lose its needles. Many species of fir are used to make wreaths but balsam is known as the fragrant fir. The scent most people associate with Christmas is the fragrance of balsam fir.
Another reason balsam fir is a good choice for Christmas wreaths is that the needles are not so rigidly attached to the stem that they feel prickly. When you run your hand along a balsam fir branch the needles will fold next to the branch appearing to make the branch soft to the touch. This desirable feature though is why the timing of the harvest of balsam fir tips is very important.
A tip is the end of a branch or side lateral on a balsam fir tree. The tip is usually the growth produced by the branch in the last two or three years. When harvested and cared for properly a tip will not lose its needles, the needles are set.
In the wreath industry the term “set” means the needle will stay on a tip and turn brown over a period of time without falling off. The opposite of set is sprilling. Sprill is a local term for a needle. When tips are picked too early or stored improperly, the needles will separate from the branch so the tip is said to be sprilling.
The common misconception is that cold weather is what causes the needles to set to the branch. The old wives tale is that after three hard frosts tips will be firmly set. In Maine we may have three hard frosts by mid October or it may be mid December before this occurs. Actually, it is the amount of daylight that determines when tips are ready. What is affected by atmosphere and temperature is storage. Tips should be stored out of the sun in a cool environment until they are used.
Balsam fir is a great choice for wreaths and centerpieces because of its fragrance, soft touch and needle retention. Start a Christmas tradition this year by adding a quality balsam product to your gift list.
October 27, 2009, Author Robert D. Foss owner of Maine Made Christmas Inc. a Christmas wreath and Christmas centerpiece business located in the heart of balsam fir country, Washington County, Maine.
Balsam has been used by man for centuries. Icelandic seaman have noted in their journals that date back to the 1300’s that they observed Native Americans using the tree medicinally for chest ailments, laryngitis and sore throats. It’s safe to assume that the Native Americans used balsam for centuries before this.
Are there other uses for balsam?
The scent of balsam is commonly used in many products. Balsam needles are used to make balsam pillows which are wonderful reminders of the holiday season or of Maine. People use these pillows in their closets, cupboards, cars, boats and campers to freshen the air. Some ashtma patients say they breathe easier with a balsam pillow near their nose. Some folks use loose balsam in their bath by steeping the needles in boiled water, then straining the mixture and pouring it in the bathwater.