Fraser Fir

Abies fraseri

Other Names: She balsam

Family: Pinaceae

Natural Range: USA (North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia)

IUCN Conservation Status

Endangered (EN)

The Fraser Fir is considered one of the most popular varieties of Christmas tree in the United States of America (USA). With its elegant form, superior needle retention, blue-green to silvery-green colour and attractive scent, the Fraser fir makes a perfect Christmas tree and has been sold commercially since the late 1940s. Fraser Fir has been used as the official Christmas tree of the President of the United States’s White House more than any other species.

Endemic to the USA, this species is found only on the highest slopes and summits of the Appalachian Mountains in southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, restricted to six disjunct populations. These populations are susceptible to destruction by windfall and fire. However, the most damaging threat to this species by far is the balsam woolly Adelgid (Adelges piceae), introduced from Europe in the 1950s. Once infected the tree loses the ability to transport water and nutrients, ultimately starving the tree. By the 1980s millions of trees had died, with only one population remaining largely unaffected. This species is now listed as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List.

Natural regeneration of this species, in areas affected by the balsam woolly Adelgid, has been rapid due to a lack of canopy cover and healthy young trees regrow where the mature forests once stood. These seedlings are infested but appear to be overcoming the effects. The continuing presence of Fraser Fir in natural forests depends on these seedlings reaching reproductive age. It is hoped that eventually trees will develop resistance to this destructive pest.

The demise of the Fraser Fir forest also has implications for other rare species that are reliant on it, for example the northern flying squirrel, Weller’s salamander, the spruce-fir moss spider, mountain ash, and rock gnome lichen.

Collecting Abies fraseri from a healthy population

Collecting Abies fraseri from a healthy population can be tricky! Credit: Dan Luscombe/Bedgebury National Pinetum

Bedgebury National Pinetum has collected large numbers of wild seed from three of the remaining populations for seed banking, and growing in the Pinetum and other collections around the UK.

To protect and preserve the Fraser Fir forests, seed collection is a priority. Reintroduction to natural habitats and research into management of the balsam woolly Adelgid will also help conservation of this species.

Image: Bill Cook, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org

Did you know?

More than a third of all conifer species are threatened with global extinction