Nature & Outdoors

Blue Ridge Explorers
The Fraser Fir: More than a Perfect Christmas Tree

By Tamara S. Randolph

Mountain residents take great pride in our well-known native conifer, the Fraser fir (Abies fraseri). While we have an abundance of Fraser fir tree farms throughout the CML region, the Fraser fir’s natural range is limited to the southern Appalachian Mountains, including the higher elevations of western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, and southwestern VA. In fact, many of the trees on our local Christmas tree farms were originally sourced from these natural Fraser fir stands.

Finding the Fraser Fir
Fraser firs grow naturally on mountain tops—places like Roan Mountain, Grandfather Mountain, Mt. Mitchell, the Balsam mountains, and peaks in the Great Smoky Mountains. It was on one of these high mountain tops that this uncommon conifer was first “discovered,” meaning it was first documented by an explorer.

John Fraser, a Scottish botanist and nurseryman, traveled to North America in the late 1700s to research the flora of the southern Appalachian Mountains. Fraser’s travel companion at the time was André Michaux, a famous French botanist. Michaux was on a mission to search American forests for new species of trees to help France rebuild its forests following years of destructive war.

According to a popular account of the venture, Mr. Michaux at some point during the expedition became somewhat annoyed by Mr. Fraser’s talkative nature. One night while camping in the NC mountains, the two men’s horses reportedly roamed away from camp. Eager to part from his travel companion, Michaux decided to go out on his own to look for his horse and insisted that Fraser go ahead without him. It was shortly after the two went their separate ways that Fraser stumbled upon the unidentified fir tree.

Whether or not the tale of Fraser and Michaux is accurate, it was Fraser’s field reports that detailed the conifer’s unique characteristics, and therefore he was credited with its “discovery.” The tree was named Abies fraseri after Mr. Fraser and today is most commonly known as the Fraser fir.

In the Forest

Fraser firs, together with red spruces, form the foundation of a special type of forest ecosystem, the spruce-fir forest. These rare and fragmented forest communities occur at higher elevations in our region, from around 4,500 feet to the summit of Mount Mitchell at 6,684 feet. Spruce-fir forests provide essential habitat for a variety of plant and animal species that are not found anywhere else in our region—in some cases, nowhere else in the world.

Unfortunately, our natural Fraser fir stands have been severely damaged over the years by a non-native insect, the balsam woolly adelgid (Adelges piceae). Other pests and pathogens, in addition to air pollution, have led to a continuous decline in naturally occurring populations of the tree. Over a period of 60 to 70 years, the vast majority of mature Fraser fir trees have been lost. In the wild, Fraser firs are considered by some sources to be a threatened species, and have in the past been listed as “endangered” by The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

On the Farm

While naturally occurring populations have waned since the 1950s, tree farms in the High Country have been steadily growing Fraser firs—and the Christmas tree industry. Beginning in November each year, thousands of families make a traditional trek to our mountains to choose their favorite Christmas trees, usually Fraser firs or white pines native to our mountain region, although many growers now offer non-native live trees, including blue spruce, Canaan fir and Turkish fir.

Choose & Cut farms abound throughout Avery, Watauga, Ashe, Alleghany, Burke, Mitchell, and Yancey counties. And currently the demand for Fraser firs—considered by many to be the perfect Christmas tree—is incredibly strong. But perfection requires a lot of dedication, and workers must tend to the trees year round. They test the soil and fertilize accordingly, remove cones (to stimulate growth to the branches), manage a variety of weeds and pests, shear most trees at least twice a year for shape, measure and grade trees, harvest trees in a short period of time, find buyers for the harvested trees, and clean the fields after harvest. In the spring, they must plant new seedlings to replace the trees they harvested the previous fall—and the cycle resumes. To put it into perspective, the average six- to seven-ft. Fraser fir Christmas tree has been visited by the grower an estimated 100 times before you take it home.

In addition to dedication, perfection takes time. Looking for a seven- to eight-footer this year? That size of tree likely started out 12 years ago as a seed, which was planted in a seedling bed and nurtured for nearly three years. In year four, that seedling was moved to a transplant bed, where it grew for another two years. In year six, the mini transplant, about two-feet tall at that point, was planted in a tree field where it grew approximately one foot each year to present. Knowing a bit about the lifecycle of your chosen tree can certainly lead to greater appreciation of it.

Finding the perfect Fraser fir can be a fun endeavor for the whole family. In addition to the “tree hunt,” many farms offer hayrides, hot beverages, petting zoos and visits with Santa Claus. If you’re ready to begin a choose and cut tradition but aren’t sure where to start, pick up your “North Carolina Choose & Cut Memories” guide at visitors’ centers and retail locations throughout western NC. You can also visit the NC Christmas Tree Association’s website at www.ncchristmastrees.com.

Tamara S. Randolph, CML’s editor, is a N.C. Certified Environmental Educator and Blue Ridge Naturalist. You can reach Tamara at tamara@seymourcc.net.

Fraser Fir Fun Facts

  • Each acre of Christmas trees provides the daily oxygen requirements of 18 people.
  • Christmas trees on tree farms serve as shelter for small animals and birds, and as a habitat for many beneficial insects.
  • The Fraser fir has many common names, including: Fraser’s fir, balsam Fraser fir, southern balsam fir, southern fir, she-balsam, balsam, and eastern fir. (Note: although the Fraser fir is very closely related to the balsam fir, A. Balsamea, it is considered a separate species.)
  • Christmas trees grown in NC have made it to the White House! In 2021, Rusty and Beau Estes, owners of Peak Farms in Ashe County, NC, presented their champion 18 ½-ft Fraser fir to the White House for display in The Blue Room (the third time the Estes have won this special honor of providing the official White House Christmas tree).

Sources: Watauga County Nurserymen’s Assn., NC Christmas Tree Association, U.S. Forest Service

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