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Posts Tagged ‘Fraser 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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Morning view form the Pisgah Inn

This past weekend, Eric and I took a few days off and drove down the Blue Ridge Parkway all the way to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’ve always wanted to do this because I’d never been to the Smokies, well at least not to the national park. It was spectacular, to say the least.

The observation tower on top of Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The observation tower on top of Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

On Saturday, we drove up Clingmans Dome (6,643 ft), the 3rd highest mountain east of the Mississippi River, surpassed only by Mount Mitchell (the highest at 6,684 ft) and Mount Craig (6,647 ft). There is a parking lot 300 ft from the summit of the mountain and from there you can hike to the top of the mountain where there is an observation tower that gets you even higher and provides a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. Wow!

As is typical, our view from the top was partially obscured by the haze that plagues the mountaintops of the Smokies. This is not the mist that originally gave the Smoky Mountains their name. According to a sign at the Clingmans Dome Information Center, visibility at the park has decreased 60% over the past 40 years and 90% of the decease is due to air pollution, mainly from sulfates given off by the burning of coal for heating and electricity. But that’s another story …

A hazy view from the top of Clingmans Dome

A hazy view from the top of Clingmans Dome

At this elevation, the forest is composed mostly of short-needled evergreens. This unique ecosystem, the Southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest, is now limited to the highest mountaintops (above 5,500 ft) of the Southern Appalachian range. The forest, a relict of the last Ice Age, is dominated by red spruce and Fraser fir. During the Pleistocene when much of North America was covered by ice, this spruce-fir forest was widespread in the Southeastern United States. As temperatures warmed, these trees disappeared from the lower elevations and the high mountaintops of the Southern Appalachian chain became refugia for this forest ecosystem where small island populations of the spruce-fir forest have survived.

Dead Fraser firs stand amongst healthy young fir trees not yet attacked by the balsam woolly adelgid.

Dead Fraser firs stand among healthy young fir trees not yet attacked by the balsam woolly adelgid.

Unfortunately, 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), a small insect that was accidentally introduced from Europe in the early 1900’s. This pest initially decimated populations of balsam fir in the Northern Appalachians and has since moved south to the Smokies. As we drove down the parkway, we had noticed lots of dead fir trees scattered along the ridges but up on Clingmans Dome, the devastation was extensive. Because the adelgids don’t usually attack the trees until they are about 15-20 years old, there are many young firs growing below the dead trees. Sadly, these will undoubtedly become infested once they get older.

Woolly adelgids on the branch of a young hemlock.

Hemlock woolly adelgids on a hemlock branch.

The balsam woolly adelgid is related to the hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae) which has been devastating populations of hemlocks throughout much of eastern North America including the northern part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The hemlock woolly adelgid has recently been discovered in the Smoky Mountains and now the beautiful hemlocks which grow at the lower elevations in the park are threatened.

A fir graveyard

A “fir graveyard” on Clingmans Dome

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The problem with these and other non-native pests is that the trees and plants that they attack have no natural defenses against them. The balsam woolly adelgid has attacked and killed the majority of the mature Fraser firs in the Southern Appalachians and most of those that remain are infested and will soon succumb to this pest. It’s very sad. Clingmans Dome looks like a Fraser fir graveyard with just the graying skeletons of these once magnificent firs still standing.

The beautiful red spruce trees which grow along side the Fraser firs in this forest ecosystem, though not attacked by the balsam woolly adelgid, are indirectly affected by the loss of these trees. Without the protection of the sturdier firs, the red spruce are more prone to wind damage and blowdowns.

An nearby mountaintop is covered with dead Fraser firs

An nearby mountaintop is covered with dead Fraser firs

On top of all this, air pollution in the Southern Appalachians which leads to the formation of acid rain and acid mist is thought to be slowing the growth rate and weakening the red spruce and remaining Fraser firs leaving them more susceptible to disease and insect damage.

Research is ongoing to try to determine ways to save these last remaining populations of the southern spruce-fir forest and perhaps over time, the trees will develop their own defenses against the adelgids and the effects of pollution.

For now, it’s nice to be able to enjoy these beautiful mountains and we plan to return in the late spring when the rhododendrons are in bloom. That should be spectacular!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

Morning view from the balcony of our room at the Pisgah Inn. Heavenly!

Morning mist over the Blue Ridge from our balcony at the Pisgah Inn. Heavenly!

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