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.

A large handmade wreath. Photo by John Krantz. Click to view original.
A large handmade wreath. Photo by John Krantz. Click to view original.

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

Making a balsam wreath. Flickr photo by JMiedtke. Click photo for a closer look.
Making a balsam and cedar wreath. Flickr photo by JMiedtke. Click photo for a closer look.

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.

Harvest considerations:

Northern white-cedar and balsam boughs. Flickr photo by JMiedtke. Click photo for a closer look.
Northern white-cedar and balsam boughs. Flickr photo by JMiedtke. Click photo for a closer look.

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.

More details are in the Careful Harvest Brochure and this Extension publication, but here are the highlights:

  1. Harvest boughs in a uniform fashion from throughout the tree rather than completely stripping boughs.
  2. Harvest short, clipped boughs rather than whole branches.  Harvested boughs should be no larger in diameter than a pencil.
  3. Harvest boughs only from trees taller than 7 feet.
  4. Minnesota law requires a permit for bough harvesting from state lands.
Where to cut to ensure a sustainable bough harvest. Click to see original.
Where to cut to ensure a sustainable bough harvest. Click to see original.
Careful Harvest Brochure. Click to view original.
Before and after proper harvest of balsam boughs. Source: Careful Harvest Brochure. Click to view original.

Making wreaths

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.

Itasca County PWC wreath group. Flickr photo by JMiedtke
Itasca County PWC wreath group. Flickr photo by JMiedtke

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):

Dave’s work addresses forest livelihoods, focusing on Tribal traditions and uses. He’s based in Cloquet, MN.

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3 Comments

  1. Nice article on making wreaths. Enjoyed it very much. Following highlight # 4 on MN Law requiring a permit to cut on state land, there should be a #5 for those who cut boughs to sell to a buyer of cut boughs (agents for wreath manufacturers). Highlight #5 should address the need for the bough cutter to show evidence that boughs were cut legally (e.g. the permit for state land, bill of sale issued by a landowner, or a property tax statement if the boughs were cut on the bough cutters property.)

  2. Thanks for the comments Bruce and Cheryl! The positive blog entry about the wreath class is certainly appreciated. Bruce, your comment about the need for a evidence of legal harvest echoes many that I heard while doing bough research in the region back in 2000. Product origin is, and likely always will be, a slippery issue with nontimber forest products. I don’t know where things stand today on an explicit requirement for buyers to verify legality of harvest, but it’s an issue worth checking out.