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Posts Tagged ‘balsam fir’

Soft-needled fir tree

Andre searches for the perfect tree at a local tree farm.

Andre searches for the perfect tree at
a local tree farm, Fragrant Firs.

Christmas is such a special time of the year and for many families, the selection of a Christmas tree is a “deep-rooted” Christmas tradition that often marks the beginning of the holiday season. Searching for and finding the perfect tree is always a lot of fun for “kids” of all ages.

There are many different species of trees that are commonly used for Christmas trees.

Pines, especially the long-needled white pine and the shorter needled Scotch pine, are very popular for Christmas trees especially here in the Shenandoah Valley. These make long-lasting Christmas trees but are sometimes hard to decorate because they tend to be very full, especially if they’ve been sheared heavily.

White pine has a beautiful shape but not much room for ornaments

White pine

The branches of white pine are quite flexible so then tend to bend under the weight of heavier ornaments; those need to be hung closer to the trunk. Scotch pine and Austrian pine don’t have this problem as they have much stiffer branches.

Spruce trees make lovely Christmas trees, if you can get past their very prickly needles! They have a wonderful shape with good strong branches for holding lots of ornaments.

Andre's snow tree glistens.

Andre’s snow tree sparkles in the light.

Because of their strong branches and open growth habit, André usually picks a beautiful spruce for his “snow tree” which he flocks and decorates with colorful balls and other ornaments – no lights go on this tree. Norway spruce, blue spruce, and white spruce are commonly cut for Christmas trees. The spruces don’t hold their needles quite as well as the pines and firs but if you keep water in the tree stand, they will last a good while.

Sometimes cedar trees are cut for Christmas trees but they can also be prickly and they dry out fairly quickly. My grampa had a little farm in northeastern Pennsylvania and he used to cut a small hemlock as a Christmas tree. These were pretty and the needles were very soft but they didn’t last long indoors and the branches were rather flimsy for holding heavier ornaments.

A beautifully decorated fir tree.

A beautifully decorated fir tree.

My personal favorite for a Christmas tree is one of the soft-needled fir trees. These trees are long-lasting with great needle retention and they add a wonderful fragrance to your home for the holidays! They have strong branches and, as long as they haven’t been over-sheared, are open enough to hang lots of ornaments. This is important because we have loads of ornaments.

Fir trees have long been a favorite for cut Christmas trees particularly in the northern parts of the country because they are a typically a northern species. Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) grows in the cold climate of New England and Canada and noble fir (Abies procera) is found in the Pacific Northwest. Both of these species are cut and shipped all over the country for the Christmas tree trade.

Rows of Canaan fir grow at Fragrant Firs in Fishersville, VA

Rows of Canaan fir grow at Fragrant Firs tree farm in Fishersville, VA

Two other firs, Fraser fir and Canaan fir, are popular Christmas trees in the Mid-Atlantic States. It’s really interesting how a northern tree species like fir came to grow as far south as North Carolina. Canaan fir and Fraser fir are believed to have evolved from relict populations of balsam fir that survived on the mountaintops after the last glacial period. During the Pleistocene glaciation, it is thought that many of the northern conifer species, including the balsam fir, migrated south along the Appalachian Mountain range until there was a continuous fir population from Canada south to North Carolina.

Red spruce and young Fraser firs grow among the dead Fraser firs near Clingman's Dome.

Red spruce and young Fraser firs
grow among dead Fraser firs in
North Carolina near Clingman’s Dome.

As the climate warmed, the balsam fir retreated back to the north and southern tree species replaced the fir trees at lower elevations in the south. However, isolated pockets of firs remained at higher elevations in the mountains of North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.

These firs, which are now considered varieties of balsam fir, are Fraser fir (Abies balsamea var. fraseri) found only in the mountains of North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, and Virginia above 3,800 feet, and Canaan Fir (Abies balsamea var. phanerolepis) which is restricted to higher elevations in the mountains of West Virginia and Virginia.

Sadly, over the last 50 years about 95% of the mature Fraser firs in the southern spruce-fir forest have been killed by the balsam woolly adelgid (Adelges piceae). This pest initially decimated populations of balsam fir in the Northern Appalachians and has since moved south to the Smokies. Read more about this devastating pest.

Until next time – Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone!

Enjoy the season!

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