All About the Fraser Fir

Abies Fraseri, the Well-Loved Christmas Tree

The Fraser fir is a high-altitude conifer tree related to the northern balsam fir. Abies fraseri occupies a very restricted native range in higher locations in the southern Appalachian mountains. Acid rain and the woolly adelgid are taking a direct and high toll on naturally occurring stands of Fraser fir. For these reasons, it is endangered in its native habitat.

People using the trees for Christmas trees should purchase them from Christmas tree farms and growers rather than harvest them themselves from a forest. The tree is also commonly called balsam fir, eastern fir, Fraser balsam fir, southern balsam, and southern fir. The lineal taxonomy is Pinopsida > Pinales > Pinaceae > Abies fraseri (Pursh) Poir

The Range of Fraser Fir

Range map of Fraser fir

 U.S. Geological Survey/Public Domain/WikiCommons

The Fraser fir has a distinct distribution. Its native habitat is restricted to high elevations in the southern Appalachian Mountains of southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina, and eastern Tennessee. It is the only fir endemic to the southern Appalachian Mountains.

The largest tree on record measures almost 34 inches DBH (86 cm)—which refers to the diameter at 4 feet (1.2 m) off the ground—87 feet (26.5 m) tall and has a crown spread of 52 feet (15.8 m). A more typical size range is 50–60 feet (15–18 m) and less than 12 inches (30 cm) DBH.

Christmas Tree Popularity

Evergreen tree getting wrapped for Christmas Use

Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

Fraser fir trees are widely used as Christmas trees. The species' fragrance, shape, strong limbs, and ability to retain its soft needles for a long time when cut (which do not prick easily when hanging ornaments) make it one of the best trees for this purpose. The slender growth habit makes it appealing to buyers looking for a tree for small rooms. 

The Fraser fir has been used more times as the Blue Room Christmas tree (the official Christmas tree of the White House) than any other type of tree. In the United Kingdom, it is grown in plantations in Scotland and sold by the thousands throughout the country. 

Endangered Species

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina, United States Of America
Fraser Fir trees (Abies Fraseri) killed by the Balsam Woolly Adelgid (Adelges Piceae).

Design Pics / Robert Cable/Getty Images 

The Fraser fir is most threatened by an invasive insect that came over from Europe in the '50s, the balsam woolly adelgid, which is related to aphids. After a tree is infected with them, it starves. (Or it's made weaker by the infestation and something else kills it.) By the '80s, millions of trees had been lost.

The ornamental uses and the planting of the tree at lower elevations by farmers may lead to the ultimate salvation of the species. Rare species of animals depend on the trees, such as the "northern flying squirrel, Weller’s salamander, the spruce-fir moss spider, mountain ash, and rock gnome lichen," according to the Mother Nature Network.

Caring for Your Cut Christmas Tree

Man setting up a Christmas tree in the living room with son and dog sitting on a couch

 

Elizabethsalleebauer/Getty Images 

Want that tree to look good through the 12 days of Christmas? The most important thing is to keep it watered. When you first bring it home, saw, straight off, a 1/2 inch to 1 inch of the trunk (1–2 cm) to open up the pores. Do not saw at an angle. Place the tree away from a heat source to keep it from drying out, and water it daily. 

Tree Stand Tips

  • Ensure your tree stand can hold about 1 quart (1 l) of water for every inch in diameter of tree trunk.
  • Don't whittle the trunk to fit in a stand that's too small for it.
  • If you can't get it into its tree stand right away, it's OK to put the tree in a full bucket of water in a cool location for a couple of days. 
  • Maintain a consistent water level in the stand to keep the trunk submerged—there can be water in a stand and not have the trunk submerged, so don't just check the level in the stand.
  • Don't drill holes in the trunk; this doesn't improve its water uptake.

Fraser Fir Christmas Tree Farms

Seasonal Holiday tree Farm

 

Douglas Sacha/Getty Image

To start in the Christmas tree farming business, a farmer needs to have a long view, as even five-year-old seedlings may take a decade before they can be harvested and sold. It's a big challenge for Christmas tree farmers to decide what trees will be popular sellers in 10 to 20 years so they can plan their planting properly. Frasier firs take about 12 years to grow to 6–7 feet in height (1.8–2.1 m).   

Prospective farmers really need to know their land, as trees need well-drained soil and an acidic pH of 5 to 6. They need a lot of space around them for ease of care of the fields and for air circulation to reduce the threat of a disease infestation. Yearly maintenance includes watering and feeding, trimming to guide shape, and weed control.