Nontimber Forest Products: Balsam boughs
By Natural Resources Extension educators Julie Miedtke (Itasca County) and David Wilsey (Cloquet – American Indian Programs)
Have you heard of nontimber forest products, or NTFPs? Oddly, they are defined by what they are not; meaning, NTFPs are most everything you find in the woods that is not timber. Mostly, the term refers to the many products that enhance and contribute to our lifestyles and our livelihoods. These products often have strong connections to our respective cultures and shared history and economy.
NTFPs are the berries and mushrooms we pick to eat; they are the game that sustains our families. They are the medicines that we gather and the barks we collect for baskets and crafts. NTFPs are the balsam boughs and princess pine that, when worked by Minnesota hands, become the wreaths upon our holiday doors. For some, NTFPs provide affordable outdoor recreation. For others, they generate a much-needed paycheck. For many of us, they do both.
Winter months offer prime opportunities for exploring forests and discovering NTFPs. Frozen soil conditions allow us to stray ‘off the beaten path’ in the woods. Winter provides a chance to discover bogs & swamps, swales, and islands that may seem inaccessible during much of the year. Winter excursions are memorable and invigorating but most of all will inspire greater appreciation of forests and NTFPs.
NTFP Highlight: Balsam boughs
Each fall, Minnesotans take to the woods to gather boughs to be clipped and woven into decorative wreaths, swags and garlands. What used to be a family activity has grown into a multimillion dollar industry. Minnesota is a national leader in the seasonal greens industry, shipping wreaths to every state in the nation and across the globe.
Wreath making provides seasonal employment to people all over Minnesota and there are many non-profit organizations such as scouts, 4-H, schools and churches that use wreath and garlands sales as a fund raising event. This short and intense seasonal industry employs thousands of people in Minnesota, and allows many ‘home based businesses’ to earn a substantial amount of income.
Approximately 98% of the boughs harvested for wreaths are from the balsam fir tree, Abies balsamea. In Minnesota, bough harvesting season begins after hard frosts have “set” the needles on the branches. Other species, including northern white cedar (pictured at right) and white pine, are also gathered to create mixed wreaths.
Boughs harvested properly cause minimal harm to the tree and, in fact, can lead to more prolific branching for future harvests. On the other hand, careless harvesting can quickly deplete and degrade the resource.
- Harvest boughs in a uniform fashion from throughout the tree rather than completely stripping boughs.
- Harvest short, clipped boughs rather than whole branches. Harvested boughs should be no larger in diameter than a pencil.
- Harvest boughs only from trees taller than 7 feet.
- Minnesota law requires a permit for bough harvesting from state lands.
In November 2008 the Itasca County Private Woodland Committee hosted a Woodland Advisor session that focused on bough harvesting and making a wreath. Janet Christensen, an expert wreathmaker from Deer River, taught the group how to make a beautiful, hand-wrapped, layered wreath using a 10″ wire hoop, 10 pounds of boughs and 23 pound wire. Over the course of two hours, the group quietly clipped boughs, created layers wrapping the foliage onto the hoop.
To make our layered wreath, boughs were clipped in three lengths:10″ and about 6″ and 4″ –and we sorted and stacked boughs into about 50 bundles. We secured the wire to the hoop by wrapping it around a couple of times. Bundles were placed at an angle and wire was rightly wrapped around the hoop, securing each bundle. The final step was creating a hook.
Ensuring a future for the resource:
To help protect the resource, members of the wreath making industry, harvesters and land managers formed the Balsam Bough Partnership in 1996. The partnership promotes sustainable harvesting practices of the bough resources and strategies that compliment other forest management practices. The partnership meets periodically to review seasonal needs, compliance on legislation and review permits. The Balsam Bough Partnership has also developed educational materials for harvesters and advocates sustainable harvesting practices.
For more information on nontimber forest products (NTFPs):
- University of Minnesota Extension: Dave Wilsey (dwilsey [at] umn.edu) or Julie Miedtke (miedt001 [at] umn.edu).
- Careful harvest brochure. (M. Demchik, J. Miedtke, K. Preece, and J. Zasada)
- Nontimber forest products and implications for forest managers. 2002. M.Reichenbach, J.Krantz, and K. Preece. University of Minnesota Extension.
- Nontimber forest products in the United States (book). 2002. E.T. Jones, R.J. McLain, and J. Weingard. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence.
- Plants used by the Great Lakes Ojibwa. (book). 1993. J.E. Meeker, J.E. Elias, and J.A. Heim. Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), Duluth.