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Bulletin #7011, Balsam Fir Tip Gathering

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Balsam Fir Tip Gathering

Photo by Dave Fuller

Originally developed by Mark Cercone, special project assistant, and William D. Lilley, forestry specialist.
Reviewed and with new information by David Fuller, agriculture/nontimber forest products professional.

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Find more of our publications and books at extensionpubs.umext.maine.edu.

Introduction

In Maine, millions of wreaths are made each year. These wreaths are usually made from balsam fir brush. Balsam fir is used because it is plentiful in Maine and also an easy material to make wreaths with. The demand for balsam fir wreaths has risen throughout the years, which has resulted in an increased demand for balsam fir brush. In fact, some wreath producers purchase brush from other locations, including Canada, because of a shortage of tip gatherers.

The end portion of a balsam fir branch is called a “tip.” Tip lengths range from 12 to 20 inches. This tip may be broken into two or three pieces. These pieces are placed together to form a tip bunch and wired onto a ring to make a wreath.

The Tip Gathering Season

Tips can be gathered only during late fall, after needles are “set.” At this time, the balsam fir tree stops growing and stays dormant until spring. The needle’s pores are sealed by a waxy coating that covers the needle’s surface. Balsam fir tips would lose their needles in a very short time if gathered before this stage. So, it’s very important for the tip gatherer to know when this change has occurred. Some tip gatherers have ruined many stacks of tips because they unknowingly gathered tips before this change.

The exact time of “setting” varies, depending on the particular area’s climate and the growing year. Experienced tip pickers may know when tips can be gathered in your area. The approximate time to begin harvesting tips varies across the state. However, the Maine Christmas Tree Association’s standards indicate that balsam fir brush should be collected after November 1 and a minimum of three consecutive 20-degree-F (or colder) nights. The tipping season usually lasts until mid-December, but there must be enough time for making and shipping wreaths before the holiday season.

Tip Gathering Information

Tips may be gathered from private or corporate-owned forests. Tip harvesters must receive permission to use private land. Many corporations issue permits for use of their land, and permit fees range from one to hundreds of dollars.

To avoid possible fines when transporting tips, make sure that you have written permission to harvest or a bill of sale from the landowner where you harvested.*

Identifying Balsam Fir

Balsam fir has dark green, blunt-ended needles that are about one inch long. Spruce looks similar to balsam fir, but has shorter needles with pointed ends. This makes the needles “prickly” to the touch. Hemlock may also be mistaken for balsam fir, but it can be identified by its short, blunt needles and by two white stripes on the needle’s underside.

A fir tip is 12-20 inches long.Figure 1: A fir tip is 12 to 20 inches long. Spruce has sharp-pointed needles that<br /><br />
are 1/3 to 2/3 inches long.Figure 2: Spruce has sharp-pointed needles that are 1/3 to 2/3 inches long.
Balsam Fir has dark green, blunt-ended needles about one inch long.Figure 3: Balsam Fir has dark green, blunt-ended needles that are about one inch long. Eastern Hemlock has flat, blunt needles about 1/3 to 2/3 inches long.Figure 4: Eastern Hemlock has flat, blunt needles that are about 1/3 to 2/3 inches long (two white stripes are on the underside).
High quality tips have needles on all sides of the stems.Figure 5: A high quality tip has needles on all sides of the stems, no needles missing and a sufficient amount of stems. A poor quality tip may have a scarce amount of stems and needles.Figure 6: A poor quality tip may have a scarce amount of stems, needles on only one side of the stems, needles missing or long stems.

Tip Quality

Many wreath producers are very selective when buying tips, because tip quality largely determines the quality of the finished wreath. Tips should be “rounded” (needles on all sides of the tips’ stems). The needles should be a dark green color, not yellow or brown. The tips shouldn’t have any signs of disease or insect damage.

Removing Tips From a Tree

Tips are usually removed from the mid section of the tree (which generally has the best quality tips) rather than from the top or the bottom. The top part of a fir tree often includes branches with long stems, while the bottom branches usually have needles on only one side. Both are unsuitable for top-quality wreaths.

To remove tips from a tree, the tip gatherer grasps the branch firmly between thumb and forefinger and snaps it off with a quick downward motion. Generally, 12 to 20 inches of the branch is removed. The last major set of stems of a fir branch should remain on the tree. This allows the lateral branches to grow back fully in about three years.

Grasp the branch firmly between the thumb and forefinger.Figure 7: Step 1—Grasp the branch firmly between the thumb and forefinger.

Snap the branch with a quick downward motion.Figure 8: Step 2—Snap the branch with a
quick downward motion.

Stacking the Tips

Once the tips are removed from the tree, they are gathered together. One common tip gathering method is to stack the balsam fir tips into a “stick.” The tip gatherer first cuts down a small conifer tree (four to six feet tall), then strips the tree of all branches except for the last set (located at the bottom end of the tree). These remaining branches are cut four to eight inches in length. The tip gathers use these sticks to transport their tips.

The tips are gathered and stacked onto a stick. The tip gatherer slides each tip down the stick until it rests on the stick’s bottom stems. The tips are stacked in alternate directions until the stick with tips weighs approximately 40 to 75 pounds. Twine may be attached to both ends of this stack to make it easier to carry.

Another tip stacking method is to collect the tips into a bundle. Stack tips onto two strings that lie perpendicular (cross-wise) to one another, then compress the tips by kneeling on them. The strings are brought up around the tips and tied together. Each bundle generally weighs 20 to 30 pounds. Some tip gatherers prefer this stacking method because the bundles are easier to handle.

A four- to six-foot long stick used for stacking tips.Figure 9: A four- to six-foot long stick used for stacking tips.

Slide tips onto stick in alternating directions.Figure 10: Slide tips onto stick in alternating directions.

A completed stack of tips weighs 40 to 75 pounds.Figure 11: A completed stack of tips weighs 40 to 75 pounds.

Selling the Tips

Individuals can sell the tips to local buyers (usually a wreath wholesaler or retailer), who provide tip specifications (required tip length, quality and stacking method). These tips are sold according to their weight.

Be sure to locate a buyer before tipping season begins. Also, stay in communication with your buyer to avoid getting stuck with excess tips at the end of the season.

*See 12 MRSA §8841–§8847 (Maine Revised Statutes, Title 12, chapter 805, Subchapter 3, article 2: Transportation or Cutting of Christmas Trees)

Technical assistance provided by Walter Thompson and Dugald Kell

Illustrations by Mark A. McCollough


Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

© 1991, 2008
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