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Abies fraseri

Abies fraseri
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Product Information

Scientific name: Abies fraseri   (Pursh) Poiret 1817

Synonyms: Abies balsamea subsp. fraseri (Pursh) A.E.Murray, Abies balsamea var. fraseri (Pursh) Spach, Abies humilis Bach.Pyl., Picea balsamea var. fraseri (Pursh) J.Nelson, Picea fraseri (Pursh) Loudon, Picea hudsonia Gordon, Pinus balsamea var. fraseri (Pursh) Nutt., Pinus fraseri Pursh

Common names: Fraser fir, She-balsam



Tree to 15(-30) m tall, with trunk to 1 m in diameter. Bark silvery gray, becoming slightly flaky with age. Branchlets with dense reddish hairs, not grooved. Buds 2-4 mm long, very resinous. Needles arranged to the sides on lower branches and also angled upward on higher branches, (1-)1.5-2(-2.5) cm long, dark green above, the tips slightly notched or rounded (to bluntly pointed). Individual needles flat in cross section and with a large resin canal on either side midway from the edges, surfaces, and midrib, with up to three rows of stomates above, particularly near the tip, and with 8-12 rows in each greenish white stomatal band beneath. Pollen cones 8-10 mm long, greenish through reddish yellow. Seed cones oblong, 3.5-6(-8) cm long, 2.5-4 cm across, dark purple when young, maturing purplish brown. Paler bracts longer than the seed scales, sticking well out beyond them and bending down to cover them. Persistent cone axis narrowly conical. Seed body 4-6 mm long, the wing about as long. Cotyledons mostly five.  Fraser fir is named after Scottish plant explorer John Fraser (1750-1811), who collected the type specimen and introduced seeds to Britain.

High southern Appalachian Mountains of southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina, and southeastern Tennessee. Forming pure stands or mixed with red spruce (Picea rubens) or other conifers and hardwoods in the wet subalpine zone; (1,200-)1,500-2,050m. The climate is humid, with cool summers and cold winters with heavy snowfall, annual precipitation varies between 850 mm and 2,000 mm.


Conservation Status

Red List Category & Criteria: Endangered

The decline of the population due to an alien pathogen (insect) since the 1960s has been very substantial and is apparently ongoing, probably at a slower rate than initially. Its area of occupancy when calculated on a fairly comprehensive set of herbarium specimen based localities (some may now be dead trees only) even when using a grid size of 4×4 km per locality (22 collections = 16 localities) remains well under 500 km² (the threshold for Endangered) and with a continuing decline this species meets the B2 criterion for Endangered. Fraser fir occurs in scattered populations, sometimes pure at the highest elevations, but more often mixed with Picea rubens and Betula papyrifera above 1,500 m, at lower elevations also with Tsuga caroliniana, Betula alleghaniensis, Sorbus americana, Acer saccharum and Fraxinus caroliniana. Ericaceae and various herbs are common in the understorey, often thick moss carpets (Hylocomium splendens) cover the forest floor. The disjunct subpopulations of this fir, restricted to the mountain tops and their north-facing slopes of the southern Appalachians, are susceptible to destruction by windfall and fire. However, by far the most damaging agent is an insect, the Balsam Woolly Adelgid (Adelges piceae) discovered in 1957 in Abies fraseri on Mt. Mitchell. This alien pest has spread quickly to all subpopulations causing massive dieback through impairment of translocation flow in the cambium. Millions of trees had died by the 1980s and only one substantial population (Mt. Rogers, Virginia) remained largely unaffected (Beck 1990). After massive die-back competitors such as Picea rubens and Betula sp. can take over dominance in several locations in North Carolina (DeSelm and Boner 1984). The remaining stands of Fraser Fir have very limited commercial value as timber trees. The most important use is growing this species for Christmas trees; it is considered the best conifer available in the US for this purpose. It has a natural 'Christmas tree shape' and retains its fragrant, dark green leaves well for this indoor use. It is also widely used as an ornamental tree for gardens with several cultivars named. At least in the UK it does not usually have a very long life as a garden tree. Methods to control this introduced insect are still being researched but none have been fully effective; some small scale protection can be provided by chemical insecticides. The latter strategy is very costly and is only used in plantations for Christmas trees and in some high profile recreation areas. In some stands that have died, there is massive seedling recruitment, and some of these seem to go through new infestations only partially damaged. It is hoped that eventually resistance may build up from these individuals. Small subpopulations are known from six peaks, including the Smoky Mountains National Park.



  • Farjon, A. (2010). A Handbook of the World's Conifers. Koninklijke Brill, Leiden.
  • Eckenwalder, J.E. (2009) Conifers of the World: The Complete Reference. Timber Press, Portland.
  • IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Cambridge, UK /Gland, Switzerland

Copyright © Aljos Farjon, James E. Eckenwalder, IUCN, Conifers Garden. All rights reserved.

Product CodeABIOTPLW13

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