Judson A. Eaton, Professor McGill College (1897) – Classics Professor
A version of this article appeared in the Westmount Independent, April 21, 2015
Have you noticed the “snow caves” in Westmount Park? This is our dog’s favourite area to explore during the winter season. They are located in a stand of six beautiful silver firs (Abies alba) adjacent to Westmount Park’s clay tennis courts. This time of year their boughs are downward-sloped creating a wall of snow containing snow-free areas.
Silver firs (also known as Sapin pectiné or Weißtanne) have a striking silver colour from the needle’s underside containing two parallel white lines (comprised of stomates) adjacent to their midribs. The bark is a greyish silver bearing upright barrel-shaped cones (as in all “true firs”) on the highest branches. The cone’s scales fall off at maturity leaving the empty portion attached to the tree. Their crowns are initially conical and flatten over time – often referred to as “storks’ nests”. The tree’s shape has been described as a “Chinese pagoda” with large cones that “hang like bells”.
The trees’ native habitat are the mountainous areas of central and southern Europe. Here, their snow caves offer snowshoe hares protection during the winter season. Large groves of silver firs still exist in the Vosges Mountains in France’s Alsatian territory – protected within the Parc naturel régional des Ballons des Vosges.
In Northern Europe, the silver fir is regarded as a birth-tree. In Old Irish, the tree is named “ailm” – relating to the word “palm”, the birth-tree of the Middle East, from which the Phoenix (a bird that undergoes a fiery death and then rises again from the ashes) is born. In Greek, the tree is named “elate” from Eileithyia (Elate-Thuia) the goddess of childbirth that symbolically wields a burning pine-torch.
Greek mythology tells the story of Pan (god of the woods and pastures) pursuing the nymph Pitys who avoids capture by turning into a fir tree. Unable to catch his quarry, Pan removes a bough from the tree and, from that day on, always wore it as a crown. Pitys’ mournful songs; however, are still heard when the wind blows through the tree’s branches.
In the past people believed that these trees could impart healing powers. For example, in Sonnenberg Germany gout sufferers would tie a knot on a bough and say “god guard thee noble fir, I bring thee my gout.” In Bohemia, poachers had a more insidious use: rendering themselves invisible by ingesting the cone’s seeds before dawn on St. John’s Day.
The species has a myriad of uses: Its family name “Pinaceae” (a tree family dating to the Triassic period – 200-250 million years ago) is derived from the Burgundy pitch (from boiling tar) it produces. The Egyptians used pitch in their embalming and mummification processes as early as 2200 BCE.
In medieval times Strasbourg turpentine also known as “Tuscan olio di abezzo” (named after a forest of silver firs in the Hockwald) was manufactured from this species. It was used as a varnish on oil and tempura paintings – many artists utilized the less expensive Venice turpentine (from the larch). Strasbourg turpentine was also applied as a protective varnish, on sculptures, against verdigris (green pigments) that occur when certain metals oxidize.
In the 18th century, pitch was used for caulking and as a protective agent on rigging, in ocean vessels, against the detrimental effects of salt spray. A 1700s book describes the value of pitch as (it) “…will not only preserve the Health of her Men, by Lodging them warm and in good Order, but it will also add to the Motion of the Machine, and make her to Sail much swifter”.
By the 1800s, the Prussian and Austrian governments, encouraged the use of a skin plaster made from Burgundy pitch as a prevention from epidemic cholera.
The tree’s cones are used in the production of Templin oil, a pine, balsamic and sweet orange fragrance, also used as an additive found in cold and arthritis remedies. The wood is also used in the manufacturing of violins – it produces excellent resonance. (The Norway spruce is more commonly used).
Finally, while standing amongst these trees in Westmount Park – watching our dog explore these snow caves – I am reminded of a quote from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:
“The pine-tree seems to listen, the fir-tree to wait: and both without impatience:
they give no thought to the little people beneath them devoured by their impatience and their curiosity.” Der Wanderer und sein Schatten (The Wanderer and His Shadow)