Domestic Encyclopædia (1802)/Fir-tree

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FIR-TREE, the name of several species of the Pinus, or pine-tree, of which the following are the principal:

1. The sylvestris, or Scotch fir, which is a native of Scotland, and flourishes best in a poor sandy soil, especially if it be mixed with loam: on rocks or bogs it seldom attains a large size; if planted in a black soil, it becomes diseased; and, on chalk-lands, it perishes.

This species of fir thrives most luxuriantly on the north and east sides of hills, where it not only grows more rapidly, and attains a greater height, but the grain of its wood is also more compact, and the trees are fuller of sap than if they had been planted in another direction.

The Scotch fir is propagated from seeds, which are obtained from the cones of fruit it produces. The proper time of sowing is in the latter end of March, or beginning of April: it the seeds be set in a grove, the tree becomes tall and naked; if in open situations, exposed to the sun, it becomes branched. At the age of four years, it is to be transplanted to the place where it is intended to remain; during which operation the utmost caution should be taken, that the central or tap-root be not broken off, or in any manner impeded in its growth; as, in that case, the stem would cease to shoot upwards, and the tree remain a dwarf. But, notwithstanding every care taken by the industrious planter, his hopes are often frustrated by predatory animals, such as squirrels, that strip the whole bark off the young tree, in consequence of which it dies, and is broken by the first high wind. The hare is another enemy to young firs, though less dangerous: it is affirmed that hares may be drawn away from them, by sowing in their vicinity the Cytisus Laburnum, a species of the Bane-trefoil, the young shoots of which they prefer to firs.

This species of the fir, is one of the most useful plants in the whole vegetable creation: it furnishes us with the best red or yellow deal, which is employed in the making of masts, floors, wainscots, tables, boxes, and for numberless other purposes.—The trunk and branch of this species, in common with the rest of the pine tribe, afford excellent pitch and tar.—The tops, or young tender shoots, are an useful substitute for fodder, especially during the winter season: see vol. i. p. 460.—The roots, when divided into small splinters, are employed by the poor as a substitute for candles.—The outer bark is of considerable use in tanning leather; the inner rind is, by the inhabitants of Loch-Broom, in the county of Ross, converted into ropes. In the more northern parts of Europe, it is, in times of scarcity, made into bread: for this purpose, the inhabitants select a tree, the trunk of which is smooth, and contains the least portion of resin: they strip off the bark in the spring, dry it gently, then reduce it to powder, and knead it with a small quantity of corn meal and water, in which state it is baked into bread.—The young cones, when distilled, afford an essential diuretic oil, somewhat resembling that of turpentine: a resinous extract is likewise prepared from them, and believed to possess virtues similar to those of the balsam of Peru.—An infusion of the buds is highly recommended as an antiscorbutic.

2. The Abies, or Spruce-fir, which is a native of the northern parts ot Europe, whence it has been introduced into this country. It is propagated in the same manner as the Scotch-fir, and delights in a dry, gravelly situation, though it will thrive in almost every soil. It also succeeds on a loam, and even on a hard dry rock; but frequently decays at the end of 18 or 20 years, if planted on a stiff, wet clay. The same precautions as are to be observed in transplanting the Scotch fir, ought to be more carefully attended to with respect to the Spruce fir, which should be set exactly in the same direction in which it stood before; as, by turning the bark to another quarter of the compass, the tree generally perishes.

There are two varieties of this species, namely, the white and black spruce; the wood of both is very light, and decays when exposed to the air for a considerable length of time: it is chiefly employed for packing-cases, musical instruments, and the like. Its branches form the principal ingredient in preparing the essence of spruce, from which spruce-beer is brewed. A fine clear turpentine oozes from these trees: the Indians of North-America are said to employ it in curing green wounds, as well as certain internal disorders: the resin which distils from the White Spruce-fir, in particular, is supposed to be a sovereign remedy in fevers, and in pains of the breast and stomach. In Britain, this resinous juice is boiled in water, and strained through a linen cloth, by which process it acquires a solid consistence, a reddish brown colour, and an odour by no means disagreeable—whence it is called Burgundy pitch. In obstinate coughs, affections of the lungs, and other internal complaints, plasters of this resin, by acting as a topical stimulus, are frequently found of considerable service.

3. The picea, or Yew-leaved Fir; which is a tall ever-green, and a native of Scotland, Sweden, and Germany. This species also produces two varieties, viz. the Silver Fir, and the Balm of Gilead Fir. The former grows to a great height (in Germany sometimes rising to 180 feet), and has received that name from the white appearance of its leaves. It is very hardy, and will thrive in any situation; but prospers remarkably in a rich, loamy soil. The balm of gilead fir is eminently calculated for ornamental gardening, on account of the beauty of its form, and the fragrance of its foliage. It ought to be planted in a rich, good earth, as it grows best in a deep, black, sandy mould, where its roots have sufficient room to strike freely. From this variety exudes the resinous juice, erroneously called Balm of Gilead, on account of its possessing the same properties as that which is produced from the Pinus balsamea, or Hemlock-fir, a native of Virginia and Canada, but seldom cultivated in England. In common with the other turpentines obtained from the pine tribe, that of the balm of gilead fir is a hot, stimulating, and detergent medicine: small doses ot it have sometimes been successfully used in chronic rheumatisms and palsy.

The different species of fir are infested by a variety of insects: the most formidable ot these is a brown grub, about 4-10ths of an inch in length, which changes into a brownish moth, resembling those producing the grubs which infest apple and pear trees. These moths deposit their eggs in the heads or tops of the firs, where they are hatched in the month of May, when the young grubs eat their way into the leading branches, and consume the pith in their course. They continue their depredations till the beginning of June, when they assume the form of chrysalis, and lie in a torpid state till Midsummer, at which period they become perfect moths. As these insects multiply most rapidly, the greatest caution is necessary in planting firs, that they may not be propagated from an infected nursery; in which case it will be extremely difficult to extirpate the vermin. The only effectual method of destroying them is, to lop off, in the month of May, the branches thus infested; for after the trees have attained a height exceeding ten or fifteen feet, there is no remedy.