CPC Plant Profile: Fraser Fir
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Plant Profile

Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri)

Abies fraseri branch detail. Photo Credit: Rob Nicholson
Description
  • Global Rank: N/A
  • Legal Status: N/A
  • Family: Pinaceae
  • State: GA, NC, TN, VA, WV
  • Nature Serve ID: 128167
  • Date Inducted in National Collection: 01/01/1985

The Fraser fir is endemic to high elevations in the southern Appalachian Mountains. It is named after John Fraser, the Scottish botanist/explorer who discovered it in the late 18th century. This coniferous evergreen tree grows from 30-80 ft. tall, around 12 inches in diameter, and has a narrow crown and shallow root system. As one of the few trees to grow at high elevations, this species appears to play an important role in controlling erosion in southern watersheds by holding shallow soil to the steep wet slopes that it grows on. Unfortunately, in the past fifty years the number of mature, reproductive Fraser fir trees has declined by as much as 91% in areas where it naturally occurs. This decline is primarily attributed to the presence of an introduced insect, the balsam wooly adelgid, but other environmental factors, including acid rain, may also be a contributing problem. Although the survival of this species in the wild is threatened, it is thriving in cultivation, where regular application of insecticides can control the balsam wooly adelgid. In fact, it has recently become a favorite in the Christmas tree world. The Fraser fir's natural shape, combined with its fragrant dark green foliage and long needle retention time have made it one of the most popular Christmas tree species nationwide. A 1993 report noted 2,500 North Carolina growers who planted 30,000 acres of Fraser fir, about 2,700 trees per acre. It has been recently designated \"The Cadillac of Christmas Trees.\"

Participating Institutions
Updates
Center for Plant Conservation
  • 08/16/2021
  • Propagation Research

In 2021, CPC contracted The Morton Arboretum to recollect seed from a population currently held in long term orthodox seed storage as part of an IMLS-funded seed longevity experiment. The National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation will evaluate how germination tested viability and RNA Integrity of seed lots decline over time in storage.

  • 07/29/2020
  • Seed Collection

Seeds are being collected for gene preservation in the hopes that a future solution to the adelgid problem will be discovered, and that the firs may be reintroduced into their native habitats. This practice needs to be coordinated to ensure that as much genetic variation is represented in the seed collection as possible without harm to the species as a whole.

  • 07/28/2020
  • Seed Collection

According to the online Missouri Botanic Garden database, Alanna Sanders collected two wild provenance accessions of Abies fraseri from Grayson County, Virginia in September 2019.

  • 07/28/2020
  • Demographic Research

Berry & Smith 2015 tested if cloud immersion affects the physiology of remnants stands of Abies fraseri and Picea rubens at Mount Mitchell State Park in North Carolina. They found xylem water potential recovers from morning to afternoon on cloudy days but not on clear days. These effects were greater on juvenile compared to adult trees. These results indicate that rising a higher cloud base (likely to occur in most future climate scenarios) will negatively impact these declining forests.

  • 07/28/2020
  • Propagation Research

This species is thriving in the Christmas tree trade, and a number of papers have been published on propagation methods. These studies includes propagation from seed, grafting, air layering, stem cutting, and tissue culture (micropropagation). (Bruck 1983, Wise et al. 1985, Saravitz 1990, Bryan 1991, Blazich and Hinesley 1994, Bergmann 1997, Rajbhandari and Stomp 1997, Hinesley et al. 1998, Hinesely et al. 2000)

  • 07/28/2020
  • Genetic Research

Clark et al. (2000) performed a genetic study using chloroplast microsatellites to determine if Abies fraseri is genetically distinct from the closely related taxa, Abies balsamea and Abies balsamea var. phanerolepis. Results showed a clear genetic divergence among these three eastern North American species of Fir. This study also found relatively high levels of genetic variation for all three species.

Nature Serve Biotics
  • 05/02/2017

A glacial relict southern Appalachian endemic occurring above 1500 m from southern Virginia to North Carolina and Tennessee, in 7-10 mountain areas. Historically a local a canopy dominant in its best-developed sites. Following moderate losses due to logging and land-clearing in the late 1800's and early 1900's, the species has more recently experienced catastrophic decline due to an introduced insect pest (the balsam woolly adelgid), for which there is currently no effective mitigation. Adelgid impacts are somewhat exacerbated by other threats such as pollution and trampling. The future of the species is unknown; the survival of all native stands is in jeopardy.

Irina Kadis
  • 01/01/2010

This fir is threatened with extinction in the wild in part because of an exotic insect, the balsam wooly adelgid, that first appeared in the southern Appalachians in 1957. Since it was first detected, the balsam wooly adelgid has spread rapidly, killing

Irina Kadis
  • 01/01/2010

Populations are located in western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, and southwestern Virginia on the peaks of the seven highest mountains in that area. These mountains include Clingman's Dome, and the Black Mountains, (including Mount Mitchell, which is the highest mountain in the eastern U.S. at 6,684ft tall) in North Carolina; Roan Mountain in Tennessee; and Mount Rogers in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia. In these populations, anywhere from 44-95% of the reproductively mature Fraser fir is dead, but a large number of fir seedlings, not yet susceptible to the damaging effects of the balsam woolly adelgid, are growing in the now-exposed understory. (Dull et al. 1988) It remains to be seen if this new generation of firs will be able to survive long enough to reach reproductive age, which is around 15 years old.

Irina Kadis
  • 01/01/2010

Allen, Kupfer, and Cairns are researching several aspects of high elevation forests, with one of their focuses being on the spatial patterns of mortality and regeneration following the introduction of the balsam woolly adelgid. (Allen and Kupfer 2000, 2001) Professor Fred Hain (North Carolina State University) is trying to determine whether or not some Fraser fir are resistant to the adelgid and, if so, why. This resistance may potentially come in the form of thicker bark, or in the production of a substance called juvabione, which is similar to the adelgid's growth hormone, and keeps the adelgids from fully maturing (at least in the lab). Professors Royce Woolsey and David Butcher (Western Carolina University) have been studying differences in the chemical composition of the seeds and foliage of Abies fraseri in an attempt to characterize the chemical differences between trees that makes some individuals or stands more resistant to attack by the balsam wooly adelgid. Early studies of variation in morphological, anatomical and chemical characteristics revealed that Fraser, intermediate and balsam fir are all part of a cline or gradual variation pattern. Not only do bract lengths decrease and cone scale lengths increase from south to north, but a host of other traits also change along this geographic gradient. (Robinson and Thor 1969, Thor 1968, Thor and Barnett 1974, Zavarin and Snajberk 1972) Clark et al. (2000) performed a genetic study using chloroplast microsatellites to determine if Abies fraseri is genetically distinct from the closely related taxa, Abies balsamea and Abies balsamea var. phanerolepis. Results showed a clear genetic divergence among these three eastern North American species of Fir. This study also found relatively high levels of genetic variation for all three species. Permanent research plots were set up in a number of Fraser fir populations in the early 1960's as concern about the impacts of the balsam woolly adelgid on the species were raised. Busing and Clebsch (1988) had plots on Clingman's Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and North Carolina State University also had plots from 1966-1978. Research on Mt. Mitchell by the University of Michigan and Forest Experimental Station found that the mortality of Fraser fir on Mt. Mitchell from 1955 to 1965 was estimated at over 1.5 million trees, which was about 82-98% of the overstory. ""Attempts to use the tree as an ornamental at low elevations have not been successful."" (Harrar 1962) ""Being occasionally planted in the parks and gardens of the northern states and Europe, it does not live long, suffering from hot, dry weather."" (Sargent 1965) At the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Fraser fir suffered yearly damage from the hot and dry summer conditions as well as from spider mite infestations. Despite these dire early predictions, this species is thriving in the Christmas tree trade, and a number of papers have been published on propagation methods. These studies includes propagation from seed, grafting, air layering, stem cutting, and tissue culture (micropropagation). (Bruck 1983, Wise et al. 1985, Saravitz 1990, Bryan 1991, Blazich and Hinesley 1994, Bergmann 1997, Rajbhandari and Stomp 1997, Hinesley et al. 1998, Hinesely et al. 2000) A great deal of work has also been done in the Christmas tree industry on ways to increase the marketability of the Fraser fir as a Christmas tree. (Hinesley & Blankenship 1991a & 1991b, Hinesley et al. 1992, Hinesley & Snelling 1992, Hinesley & Snelling 1995, Hinesley & Snelling 1997, Hinesley et al. 2000)

Irina Kadis
  • 01/01/2010

The National Park Service made unsuccessful attempts to control the balsam wooly adelgid at Clingman's Dome in Tennessee (Dirr 1998). Various methods of control for the balsam woolly adelgid have been attempted, with little practical success. The only truly successful method has been to coat each limb of each tree with a mild soap, which effectively dehydrates the adelgids. This method was employed for a number of years on Clingman's dome, but was finally given up due to its high cost and low benefit.

Irina Kadis
  • 01/01/2010

Search for potential methods of adelgid control: The long-term consequences of balsam woolly adelgid attack are unknown. Currently, openings created by the adelgid-caused death of mature firs contain a number of fir seedlings but, unless new methods of adelgid control are found, these trees may not survive to maturity. This makes the future status of Fraser fir in natural stands extremely uncertain. Monitor and survey all populations: It appears as though certain stands and individual trees may have a better resistance to the balsam woolly adelgid. The location of potentially resistant trees is important in further research into resistance. Continue research on adelgid resistance: It is important to know how and why some individual Fraser fir trees are able to combat the adelgid while others die.

Irina Kadis
  • 01/01/2010

Seeds are being collected for gene preservation in the hopes that a future solution to the adelgid problem will be discovered, and that the firs may be reintroduced into their native habitats. This practice needs to be coordinated to ensure that as much genetic variation is represented in the seed collection as possible without harm to the species as a whole.

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Photos
Nomenclature
Taxon Abies fraseri
Authority (Pursh) Poir.
Family Pinaceae
CPC Number 3
ITIS 181829
USDA ABFR
Common Names Eastern Fir | Fraser Balsam Fir | Fraser Fir | Kline's Nest
Associated Scientific Names Abies humilis | Pinus fraseri | Abies fraseri | Abies balsamea subsp. fraseri | Abies balsamea var. fraseri | Picea balsamea var. fraseri | Picea hudsonia | Pinus balsamea var. fraseri
Distribution Abies fraseri has a disjunct (fragmented) distribution and is restricted to high elevations in the southern Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina, southwestern Virginia, and eastern Tennesse
State Rank
State State Rank
Georgia SNA
North Carolina S2
Tennessee S1S2
Virginia S1
West Virginia SNA
Habitat

Fraser fir is adapted to a cool, moist climate of the \"microthermal rain forest\" with average annual temperatures of about 45°F and annual precipitation of 75 to 100 inches that is evenly distributed during the year. Fog is a very important environmental factor adding considerably to precipitation, as it is present during more than half of the growing season. Abies fraseri most commonly grows at elevations ranging from 1,767 to 2,037 meters on shallow, rocky soil that is acidic, with a very thin black soil horizon lying directly on the bedrock.

Ecological Relationships

The spruce-fir forests of the southern Appalachian Mountains occur in an island-like distribution on the peaks of the seven highest mountain areas in southwestern Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. These forests are thought to be relicts from the last period of glaciation, and contain a number of rare and endemic species. In terms of climate, the spruce-fir forest relates to areas such as Maine and Quebec, Canada. The main components of the spruce-fir forest are red spruce and Fraser fir. Other important species include yellow birch, mountain-ash, hobblebush, and blackberries. Red squirrels are the primary consumers of seeds. Frampton explains the relationship among the Appalachian firs as the following: Fraser fir is closely related to the balsam fir. The most conspicuous trait that distinguishes these two species is the relative length on the cone scales and bracts. In Fraser fir, the bracts are much longer than the cone scales and curved downward. In balsam fir the bracts are much shorter, and fully enclosed within the cone scales. In West Virginia and the Shenandoah National Park in northern Virginia a number of isolated balsam fir have been found with cones that have a relative length of bract to scale that is intermediate between Fraser and balsam fir. Fir in these populations are called intermediate or bracted balsam fir, and designated a variety of balsam fir (Abies balsamea var. phanerolepis Fern).

Pollinators
Common Name Name in Text Association Type Source InteractionID
Other
Wind Confirmed Pollinator Link

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