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Abies fraseri

(Balsam Fir)


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A slow-growing selection reaching only about 5' tall and is 10' wide. Develops a nice spreading shape that hugs the ground .

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 (Dull et al. 1988), 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' (Dirr 1998).


Threat status

Common Names

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Common Names in English:

Balsam Fir, Fraser Fir, Eastern Fir, Fraser Balsam Fir, She Balsam, Southern Balsam, Southern Balsam Fir, Southern Fir


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Family Pinaceae

Trees or rarely shrubs , evergreen or deciduous, monoecious. Branchlets often dimorphic : long branchlets with clearly spirally arranged , sometimes scalelike leaves; short branchlets often reduced to slow growing lateral spurs bearing dense clusters of leaves at apex. Leaves solitary or in bundles of (1 or) 2-5(-8) when basally subtended by a leaf sheath ; leaf blade linear or needlelike, not decurrent. Cones unisexual . Pollen cones solitary or clustered, with numerous spirally arranged microsporophylls ; microsporophyll with 2 microsporangia; pollen usually 2-saccate (nonsaccate in Cedrus, Larix, Pseudotsuga, and most species of Tsuga) . Seed cones erect or pendulous, maturing in 1st, 2nd, or occasionally 3rd year, dehiscent or occasionally indehiscent, with many spirally arranged ovulate scales and bracts; ovulate scales usually smaller than bracts at pollination, with 2 upright ovules adaxially, free or only basally adnate with bracts, maturing into seed scales. Seed scales appressed , woody or leathery, variable in shape and size, with 2 seeds adaxially, persistent or deciduous after cone maturity. Bracts free or adnate basally with seed scales, well developed or rudimentary , exserted or included . Seeds terminally winged (except in some species of Pinus) . Cotyledons 2-18. Germination hypogeal or epigeal. 2n = 24* (almost always) .

Ten or eleven genera and ca. 235 species: N hemisphere; ten genera (two endemic) and 108 species (43 endemic, 24 introduced ) in China.

Species of the Pinaceae are among the most valuable and commercially important plants in the world. Most species are trees, and are often excellent sources of lumber, wood products, and resins; many are cultivated for afforestation and as ornamentals .[1]

Genus Abies

Trees evergreen , crown usually spirelike to conic, sometimes flat to round topped in age. Bark initially thin, smooth , bearing resin blisters, in age furrowed and/or flaking in plates . Branches whorled , irregular internodal branches occasionally produced by epicormic sprouting (growing from a dormant bud) ; short (spur) shoots absent; leaf scars prominent , ± circular to broadly elliptic , flush with twig surface, slightly depressed , or slightly raised evenly all around. Buds ovate or oblong , resinous or not, apex rounded or pointed . Leaves borne singly, persisting 5 or more years, spirally arranged but often proximally twisted so as to appear either 1-ranked (pointing up like toothbrush bristles ) or 2-ranked, sessile, typically constricted and often twisted above the somewhat broadened base , sheath absent; leaves on vegetative branches flattened, frequently grooved adaxially, usually notched to rounded at apex; leaves on fertile branches sometimes appearing 4-sided, upright, sharp-pointed to rounded at apex; resin canals 2. Cones borne on year-old twigs . Pollen cones grouped, ovate or oblong-cylindric, leaving gall-like protuberances after falling, yellow to red, green, blue, or purple. Seed cones maturing in 1 season , erect , ovoid to oblong-cylindric or cylindric , not falling whole but scale by scale, cone axis persisting as an erect "spike" on branch ; scales shed individually, fan-shaped, lacking apophysis and umbo; bracts included to exserted. Seeds winged , the wing-seed juncture bearing resin sac; cotyledons 4--10. x =12.

Species ca. 42: widespread in north temperate regions , North America, Mexico, Central America, Eurasia (s to Himalayas, s China, and Taiwan), n Africa.

In Abies several traditionally accepted species have closely allied sibling species , e.g. , A. balsamea -- A. fraseri, A. bifolia -- A. lasiocarpa, and A. magnifica -- A. procera. Other species may be more distinct morphologically, but many of these still appear to have evolved in geographic isolation without strong reproductive barriers developing. Thus, when distributions of species overlap, introgression between the taxa is the rule ; this may make it difficult to assign certain individuals to a species. In the interests of nomenclatural stability , I have accepted the taxa recognized by the U.S. Forest Service (E.L. Little Jr. 1979). This classification does not recognize varieties based on variations in bract characteristics but recognizes species that perhaps would be treated as varieties in other conifer genera. The only exceptions to this treatment are some necessary changes within A. concolor and A. lasiocarpa. Cases of introgression are discussed under the taxa involved. Some distinct or possibly distinct geographic populations deserve further study and may warrant future taxonomic recognition.

Most North American firs are major components of vegetation, especially in the boreal, Pacific Coast coniferous , and western montane coniferous forests, where they are important for watershed management . They are cut for pulpwood and lumber and, largely from plantations, for Christmas trees . All our species, especially Abies concolor, and several exotics are grown---some more than others---as ornamentals . Firs provide cover , and their leaves are important as food, for various birds and mammals. Species of Abies frequently have a pleasant odor; their foliage has been used as a stuffing material for pillows . Most commercial products with "pine odors" are in fact scented with essential oils distilled from Abies foliage by Russian farmers. A similar oil could be derived from balsam fir in North America.[2]

Physical Description

Species Abies fraseri

Trees to 25m; trunk to 0.75m diam.; crown spirelike. Bark gray, thin, smooth , with age developing appressed reddish scales at trunk base. Branches diverging from trunk at right angles ; twigs opposite, pale yellow-brown, pubescence reddish. Buds exposed, light brown, conic, small, resinous , apex acute; basal scales short, broad, equilaterally triangular, glabrous , resinous, margins entire, apex sharp-pointed. Leaves 1.2--2.5cm × 1.5--2mm, 2-ranked, particularly in lower parts of tree, to spiraled, flexible ; cross section flat, grooved adaxially; odor turpentinelike, strong ; abaxial surface with (8--) 10(--12) stomatal rows on each side of midrib ; adaxial surface dark lustrous green, sometimes slightly glaucous, with 0--3 stomatal rows at midleaf, these more numerous toward leaf apex; apex slightly notched to rounded ; resin canals large, ± median , away from margins and midway between abaxial and adaxial epidermal layers. Pollen cones at pollination reddish yellow or yellowish green. Seed cones cylindric , 3.5--6 ´ 2.5--4cm, dark purple overlaid with yellowish green bracts, sessile, apex round ; scales ca. 0.7--1 ´ 1--1.3cm, pubescent ; bracts exserted and reflexed over cone scales. Seeds 4--5 ´ 2--3mm, body brown; wing about as long as body, purple; cotyledons ca. 5. 2 n =24. [source]

Some (e.g. , B .F. Jacobs et al. 1984) have argued that Fraser fir is at the end of a disjunct cline of balsam fir and perhaps does not deserve separate specific status. A.E. Matzenko (1968) took the opposite view, classifying Fraser fir and balsam fir in different taxonomic series of the genus. [source]

ID Features: Two-ranked needles in a V-shape. New stems covered with gray hairs. Circular leaf scars. Smooth bark with resin blisters. Notched needle tip. Resinous buds.

Habit: Evergreen .

Flowers: No ornamental value. Monoecious. • Bloom Period: n/a • Flower Color: inconspicuous, none

Seeds: Fruit: Brown resinous cones. Cones shatter soon after maturing. Cones typically found only in upper third of the canopy . 3" to 4" long.

Foliage: Summer foliage: Needles are variable, up to 1" long. 2 lateral sets of leaves arranged horizontally, V-shaped parting between. sets. Leaf tip is notched . Dark, shiny green with 2 white stomatal lines on underside. Buds are resinous . • Fall foliage: No fall color (evergreen ).


Growth Rate: Slow growth rateSize: 4-6' tall.


Landscape Uses: Specimen tree . Widely used as Christmas tree . Bird and animal shelter . • Liabilities: Loses nice "Christmas tree " shape with age. Problem pests and diseases include: spruce budworm, woolly aphid, and. several cankers . Often performs poorly under landscape conditions. Often damaged by deer.


Mountain forests ; of conservation concern; 1500m[3].

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 (Beck 1990). 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 5,500 to 6,684 feet (1,767 to 2037 m ) on shallow, rocky soil that is acidic, with a very thin black soil horizon lying directly on the bedrock .

Ecology: 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. (Smith and Nicholas 1998) 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. (McKinley 2001). Red squirrels are the primary consumers of seeds.


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Culture: Space 12-15" apart.

Soil: Minimum pH: 5.6 • Maximum pH: 6.5

Sunlight: Sun Exposure: Full Sun .

Temperature: Cold Hardiness: 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b. (map)


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Abies americana Prov. • Abies balsamea (L.) Mill. Var. fraseri (Pursh) Spach • Abies Balsamea Fraseri • Abies balsamea fraseri (Pursh) E. Murray • Abies balsamea var. fraseri (Pursh) Spach • Abies Fraseri • Abies humilis Bach. Pyl. • Picea balsamea (L.) Loudon Var. fraseri (Pursh) Nelson • Picea Balsamea Fraseri • Picea balsamea var. fraseri (Pursh) J. Nelson • Picea fraseri (Pursh) Loudon • Pinus Balsamea Fraseri • Pinus balsamea L. var. fraseri (Pursh) Nutt. • Pinus balsamea var. fraseri (Pursh) Nutt. • Pinus fraseri Pursh


Publishing author : Lindl. Publication : in Penny Cyclop. i. 30.

Similar Species

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Frampton (1998) 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.).

Members of the genus Abies

ZipcodeZoo has pages for 115 species, subspecies, varieties, forms, and cultivars in this genus. Here are just 100 of them:

A. alba (European Silver Fir) · A. alba f. pendula (European Silver Fir) · A. alba 'Green Spiral' (European Silver Fir) · A. amabilis (Beautiful Fir) · A. balsamea (Balsam Fir) · A. balsamea fraseri (Balsam Fir) · A. balsamea f. hudsonia (Hudsonia Dwarf Silver Fir) · A. balsamea lasiocarpa (Subalpine Fir) · A. balsamea var. nana (Dwarf Balsam Fir) · A. balsamea x sibirica (Balsam Fir) · A. beshanzuensis (Baishan Fir) · A. borisii-regis (King Boris Fir) · A. bracteata (Bristlecone Fir) · A. cephalonica (Greek Fir) · A. cephalonica 'Meyer's Dwarf' (Greek Fir) · A. chensiensis (Shensi Fir) · A. chensiensis chensiensis (Shensi Fir) · A. chensiensis salouenensis (Salween Fir) · A. cilicica (Cilician Fir) · A. concolor (Balsam Fir) · A. concolor var. concolor (White Fir) · A. concolor 'Candicans' (Colorado Fir) · A. concolor 'Gables Weeping' (Gable's Weeping Colorado Fir) · A. concolor 'Green Globe' (Colorado Fir) · A. concolor 'Rockford' (Colorado Fir) · A. delavayi (Delavay's Fir) · A. delavayi fansipanensis (Fansipan Fir) · A. delavayi var. delavayi (Delavay's Silver Fir) · A. delavayi var. motuoensis (Medoc Fir) · A. delavayi var. nukiangensis (Nukiang Fir) · A. densa (Sikkim Fir) · A. fabri (Fabers Fir) · A. fargesii (Farges' Fir) · A. fargesii var. sutchuensis (Farges´ Fir) · A. firma (Japanese Fir) · A. forrestii (Forrest's Fir) · A. forrestii var. georgei (George's Fir) · A. fraseri (Fraser Fir) · A. fraseri 'Franklin' (Fraser Fir) · A. fraseri 'Julian Potts' (Fraser Fir) · A. fraseri 'Klein' (Fraser Fir) · A. grandis (Giant Fir) · A. grandis var. grandis (Grand Fir) · A. grandis x concolor (Giant Fir) · A. guatemalensis (Guatemalan Fir) · A. guatemalensis var. guatemalensis (Guatemalan Fir) · A. holophylla (Manchurian Fir) · A. homolepis (Nikko Fir) · A. homolepis var. homolepis (Nikko Fir) · A. kawakamii (Taiwan Fir) · A. koreana (Korean Fir) · A. koreana 'Aurea' (Golden Korean Fir) · A. koreana 'Gelbbunt' (Korean Fir) · A. koreana 'Goldener Traum' (Golden Korean Fir) · A. koreana 'Horstmann's Silberlocke' (Korean Fir) · A. koreana 'Piccolo' (Fir) · A. koreana 'Prostrate Beauty' (Korean Fir) · A. koreana 'Silberperl' (Korean Fir) · A. koreana 'Silber Mavers' (Korean Fir) · A. koreana 'Silver Show' (Korean Fir) · A. koreana 'Starkers Dwarf' (Korean Fir) · A. lasiocarpa (Alpine Fir) · A. lasiocarpa arizonica var. arizonica (Cork Bark Fir) · A. lasiocarpa var. arizonica (Corkbark Fir) · A. lasiocarpa x homolepis (Balsam Fir) · A. lasiocarpa 'Arizona Compacta' (Cork-Bark Fir) · A. lasiocarpa 'Duflon' (Alpine Fir) · A. lasiocarpa 'Green Globe' (Alpine Fir) · A. magnifica (California Red Fir) · A. magnifica 'Prostrata' (California Red Fir) · A. nebrodensis (Sicilian Fir) · A. nephrolepis (Manchurian Fir) · A. nordmanniana (Caucasian Fir) · A. nordmanniana equi-trojani (Kazdagi Fir) · A. nordmanniana nordmanniana (Bornmuellers Fir) · A. nordmanniana 'Golden Spreader' (Caucasian Fir) · A. nordmanniana 'Tortifolia' (Caucasian Fir) · A. numidica (Algerian Fir) · A. numidica de (Algerian Silver Fir) · A. phanerolepis (Fir) · A. pindrow (Pindrow Fir) · A. pinsapo (Spanish Fir) · A. pinsapo var. pinsapo (Spanish Fir) · A. pinsapo 'Aurea' (Golden Spanish Fir) · A. pinsapo 'Glauca' (Blue Spanish Fir) · A. procera (Noble Fir) · A. procera 'Blau Hexe' (Noble Fir) · A. procera 'Blue Spire' (Fir) · A. procera 'Frijsenborg' (Noble Fir) · A. procera 'Glauca' (Noble Fir) · A. procera 'Glauca Prostrata' (Noble Fir) · A. procera 'La Graciosa' (Noble Fir) · A. procera 'Robustifolia' (Noble Fir) · A. procera 'Sherwoodii' (Noble Fir) · A. procera 'Silver' (Fir) · A. recurvata (Min Fir) · A. recurvata var. ernestii (Chien-Lu Fir) · A. recurvata var. recurvata (Min Fir) · A. religiosa (Sacred Fir) · A. sachalinensis (Sakhalin Fir)

More Info

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Further Reading

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Data Sources

Accessed through GBIF Data Portal November 21, 2007:



  1. Liguo Fu, Nan Li, Thomas S. Elias & Robert R. Mill "Pinaceae". in Flora of China Vol. 4 Page 11. Published by Science Press (Beijing) and Missouri Botanical Garden Press. Online at [back]
  2. Richard S. Hunt "Abies". in Flora of North America Vol. 2. Oxford University Press. Online at [back]
  3. "Abies fraseri". in Flora of North America Vol. 2. Oxford University Press. Online at [back]
Last Revised: 2013-10-29