History of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Industry
“…to walk in eloquent silence with self-contained firs, is to learn what real companionship is.” (The Golden Road by L.M. Montgomery, 1910/1993, p. 188).
Fraser fir is part of a remnant forest from the last ice age. The spruce-fir forests of the southern Appalachians are a unique habitat, now found only at the highest elevations of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Encompassing such interesting sounding peaks as Mount Rogers, Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell, Richland Balsam, and Clingman’s Dome, the spruce-fir forests are now islands in what used to be a vast forest.
The development of this unique habitat is described from the perspective of Mount Mitchell in Timothy Silver’s book, Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains: An Environmental History of the Highest peaks in Eastern America.
Eighteen thousand years ago – when Pleistocene temperatures were at their lowest – several varieties of cold-adapted spruce grew as far south as central and low-land South Carolina. Over the next 12,000 years, as temperatures began to warm, the trees became increasingly concentrated in the cooler uplands until, at a point 6,000 years past (when the Holocene climate was at its warmest), most southern spruce populations became isolated in the Appalachians. Four millennia later one species, now known as red spruce, had formed forests that covered the highest peaks and extended downslope to the mid-elevations of the Blacks. Fir moved even faster, probably taking refuge in the Blacks 10,000 years ago and moving north from there. The trees may have disappeared from the Blacks during the warmest millennia of the Holocene, but they returned 2,000 to 5,000 years ago as the inter-glacial climate again began to cool. During that period a new and distinct species, today called Fraser fir, rose to prominence alongside red spruce in the southern mountains (Silver, 2003, p. 12).
And surprisingly, this vast forest existed not that long ago. Though now only found above 5,000 feet elevation, according to A. D. Hopkins (1899), the spruce forest could have possibly covered as much as 2,000,000 acres or more and no doubt covered at least half of that, and though he didn’t mentioned firs, they would make up a portion of such a forest. Hopkins hypothesized that by 1865, the spruce forests had been reduced to perhaps 750,000 acres and by 1895 the amount was 225,000 acres. These reductions were due to “disturbing influences of the first white settlers in the region” including “hacking” trees by girdling them so they would die to create pastures, the opening of roads, the hunter’s burnings, “the influence of the opposing armies in 1861,” fires, windfalls, and “drouths” which all reduced the size of the spruce forests and allowed insects and diseases to reduce the health of the trees (Hopkins, 1899, p. 236). “The exact range of either red spruce or Fraser fir was never accurately documented” (McGraw, 1980), but according to Arnold, “Twelve thousand years ago Fraser fir had an extensive distribution which ranged eastward from Missouri across Tennessee and into the Carolinas. During a period of climatic warming up to 4,000 years ago, its range was substantially reduced” (Arnold, 1994).
There are 40 to 50 species of true firs in the world (Frampton, 1998) and 3 fir species and subspecies on the east coast – balsam fir, Canaan fir (considered by most to be a subspecies of balsam fir), and Fraser fir (considered by most to be a true and separate species from balsam fir). These three run in a line from north to south. Canaan fir, found in West Virginia, is an intermediary between the more northern balsam fir which extends into Canada and Fraser which is found at the southern end of the Appalachians.
Though similar in appearance, Fraser fir is actually quite different from balsam and Canaan fir. The most important difference is that Fraser fir makes the superior Christmas tree, a fact which is based on science. In post-harvest studies conducted in the Pacific northwest by Dr. Gary Chastagner (1990) and at North Carolina State University by Dr, Eric Hinsley, Fraser fir’s ability to retain its needles when it’s cut is superior to all but the similar responding Noble fir on the west coast. And since Fraser fir also possesses a wonderful fragrance, soft needles, and strong branches, it is uniquely suited as what many consider the world’s best Christmas tree.
The ability of Fraser fir to hold its needles after being cut may have a lot to do with its home in the clouds. According to Keith Reinhardt, former research associate for NCSU, spruce-fir forests in the southern Appalachians are really temperate rainforests (Sidebottom, 2008). Because they receive greater than 80 inches of rain per year – Richland Balsam actually receives 110 to 115 inches per year – these forests may be the wettest sites in North American outside of the Pacific Northwest rainforests. Not only do Frasers in their natural habitat receive a lot of rain, they also live in the fog. During the summer, spruce-fir forests are immersed in clouds on the average 35% of the time (Sidebottom, 2008).
In fact, the spruce-fir forests were so wet, they did not burn.
If subjected only to lightning-set fires, the highest stands of red spruce and Fraser fir might go for a thousand years or longer without a significant burn. Foresters tell of blazes kindled at lower elevations that swept up various mountain slopes only to disappear when they entered the dark realm of fir and spruce. Individual trees are flammable, but “the forest as a whole is nearly immune to fire” (Silver, 2003, p. 24-25).
According to Reinhardt, Fraser fir is adapted to this very moist, very cloudy, very rainy environment. For example, when relative humidity of the air drops below 90%, the needles begin to shut their stomata, thereby restricting photosynthesis. Stomates are the openings in the underside of needles and leaves that allow for exchange of gases like oxygen and carbon dioxide between the plant and the atmosphere. Plants regulate how this exchange takes place through their stomates.
Not only have Frasers had to survive in the clouds, they’ve had to survive in conditions of extreme cold and wind. The lowest temperature recorded on Grandfather Mountain is 32 degrees below zero; wind speeds on Grandfather Mountain have been clocked (unofficially) at close to 200 miles per hour (Natural heritage: Weather records, 2005). The lowest temperature in the state was recorded on Mount Mitchell at 35 degrees below zero (Silver, 2003, p. 19) and once the wind anemometer there read 189 miles per hour before it shattered (Silver, 2003, p. 24). The Frasers have adapted to living in fog and wind by shutting their stomates to reduce moisture loss. That ability makes them a perfect Christmas tree because they shut their stomates when cut, making them slow to dry out.
Canaan fir is named after the Canaan Valley in West Virginia. Balsam is a term used for various pleasantly scented plant products. But Fraser fir is named after a man – the Scottish botanist John Fraser.
When North America opened up to explorers, botanists were as important as any adventurer. New plants were treasured by Europeans. A new plant could be anything from a landscape beauty for European royalty to the next cure for a disease to a fast growing forest tree to rebuilt Europe’s harvested forests.
Perhaps one of the most learned and persistent botanist/explorers was the Frenchman, André Michaux, who made many collecting forays into the United States. Michaux’s primary mission was to search American forests for new species of trees with which to rebuild the forests of France (Williams, 2000).
Michaux first arrived in the US in 1785 after extensive and dangerous botanical expeditions in the Middle East. He met and became friends with William Bartram who had explored the Smoky Mountains in 1775. First establishing himself in New Jersey, he moved to Charleston by 1787 to establish a garden 111 acres in size that was to be his home base for the next decade (Williams, 2000).
While reading Michaux’ journal, you realize how hardy these explorers had to be. You also realize how much Michaux depended on his horse. In his translated journal from 1793 to 1796, Michaux mentions his horses 31 times including once when he was injured being thrown from his horse and 7 times that his horse “strayed” and he sometimes had to spend the better part of a day looking for it (Thwaites, 1904).
That brings up a story that is often recounted on the Internet about how John Fraser ended up discovering Fraser fir and not Michaux even though he was the better traveled and superior botanist.
Sickness brought John Fraser to North America who, having consumption, sailed to Newfoundland in 1780 when he was thirty to recover his health.
He was always an ardent lover of plants, and here he found an extensive field, and new objects for admiration, among which he remained until 1784. He had now acquired such a taste for discovery, and such a habit of restlessness, which so prevented him from setting down to any fixed occupation, that in 1785 he set out on a journey to the Southern States of North America, and during two years he was engaged in investigating the botany of that country, which resulted in many valuable additions being made to collections at home. It was when on this journey that he met, and formed an intimate acquaintance, with Thomas Walter, the author of the Flora Caroliniana, a work which Fraser undertook to publish on his return to London, and which he did, as is evidenced by the title page, “Londini: Sumptibus J. Fraser,” and to which is prefixed, by way of frontispiece, an engraving, inscribed, “To Thomas Walter, Esq., this plate of the new Auriculated Magnolia is presented, as a testimony of gratitude and esteem, by his much-obliged, humble servant, John Fraser.” He again left England, in 1788, on a second expedition to the Southern States, and this was attended with as great success as the former, for on this occasion also he sent home many new valuable plants. While on this journey he formed an intimacy with the elder Michaux, who had then just entered on his labours as collector for the French government (Fraser, 2007).
This biography implies that Fraser and Michaux became friends, but most prefer to view them as rivals with little regard for each other. The story goes that Michaux and Fraser traveled together in 1787 from South Carolina taking much the same route that Batram had more than a decade earlier (Coffey, 2001). Apparently Fraser talked too much for Michaux, and when Michaux’ horse ran off, he told Fraser to go on ahead without him. As a consequence, John Fraser took the high road and discovered the Fraser fir.
But even if Michaux had seen Fraser fir first, he probably didn’t recognize it as a distinct species. Michaux’ travels to the higher elevations of the Southern Appalachians from 1789 through 1796 allowed him many opportunities to view Frasers, but he seldom remarked about the plant, being more interested in rhododendrons and other showy specimens that had more commercial value. After all, before becoming a Christmas tree, Fraser fir had few commercial uses.
Michaux reported visiting the Abingdon and Wytheville, Virginia, area on November 23 and 24, 1793, where he described two trees: Abies canadensis and Pinus abies canadensis. Michaux also mentions Pinus abies canadensis when he traveled from Jonesborough, Tennessee, to the Iron Mountains on March 21, 1796 (Thwaites, 1904). These are not currently used scientific names though Pinus is the genus for pines and Abies for fir. So what species did he mean by them? Could they have been Fraser fir?
Dr. John Frampton, Christmas tree geneticist with NCSU, surmised that Michaux used Abies canadensis to describe eastern hemlock (now known as Tsuga canadensis) (2008, personnel communication). He couldn’t find a listing for Pinus abies canadensis but it probably referred to Fraser fir, which is now known as Abies fraseri. Other names for Fraser fir in older literature that he found include Pinus fraseri, Picea fraseri, Abies humilis, and Abies americana which was his personal favorite.
It is not surprising that Michaux didn’t realize that the tree was different from balsam fir (the Canadian fir). Fraser fir was often referred to as the southern balsam fir in forestry literature up through the 1950s, and mountain people commonly called them balsams. In any case, since Christmas tree growers in western North Carolina were predominately descendants of the Scots-Irish, it’s perhaps fitting it was named for a Scotsman instead of a Frenchman, though the name has been a problem ever since. Even today, the tree is often spelled as Frazer fir or Frazier fir. I even saw one sign locally advertising “Frazer Fur” for sale.
Michaux did have a connection to what would become the Fraser fir Christmas tree industry, however. While collecting in western North Carolina in the 1780s and ‘90s, he often stayed with Colonel Waightstill Avery at his plantation, Swan Ponds, near Morganton, North Carolina (Williams, 2000). Avery owned not only Swan Ponds but also summer pasturage in the mountains where one of his descendants, also named Waightstill Avery, would become a County Extension Agent in Avery County, help establish the Fraser fir Christmas tree industry, and become a Christmas tree grower himself.
The Fraser fir was first described by German-American botanist Frederick Pursh in Flora Americae Septentrionalis in 1814. Pursh writes, "On high mountain of Carolina. Fraser. This species, known among inhabitants by the name of Double-balsam fir, resembles the preceeding (balsam fir) in several respcts but differs at first sight in being a smaller tree, the leaves shorter and more erect, and the cones not one fourth the size. Messrs. Frasers (John Fraser and his son who was also named John Fraser) introduced this tree into England a few years ago."
Medicinal Uses of Fraser Fir
Fraser fir did have other uses before becoming a Christmas tree. Early on, the tree was used for medicinal purposes, starting with the Cherokee Indians. The Fraser fir was “a panacea for the Cherokee inasmuch as it was used for such diverse ailments as lung pains, kidney trouble, internal ulcers, colds, venereal diseases, and constipation. The plant’s resin also served as a seasoner for other medicines, and it was said to be highly effective when used externally on fresh wounds” (Schwarzkopf, 1985, p. 3).
The early European settlers found similar uses for Frasers (though refered to as balsam fir in this article).
Like the Indians, the early settlers collected the resin of the balsam for its ability to heal both external injuries and internal disorders. Balsam resin was collected by pricking the resin-containing blisters with a knife and directing the resin into a collecting vial by the means of an open turkey quill. In 1828 Elisha Mitchell (1793-1857), longtime professor of chemistry, mineralogy, and geology at the University of North Carolina for whom Mount Mitchell is named, noted that local inhabitants were collecting balsam resin in the area of Grandfather Mountain (in present-day Avery County), and it appears that it was being gathered on the upper slopes of the Black Mountains by 1830s (Schwarzkopf, 1985, p. 9).
Gathering resin was described in Shepherd M. Dugger’s book, The Balsam Groves of the Grandfather Mountain: A Tale of the Western North Carolina Mountains printed in 1934.
The man’s object in the tree was to gather balsam of fir, which, being a much valued medicine, I will acquaint the reader with its production, as follows: The resin of the balsam tree is carried in the bark, and when this becomes overcharged it deposits its surplus just beneath the surface in small protuberances called blisters, because they resemble little bladders caused by fire or overwork upon the hands. These vary in size from a mere pimple to a bulk as large as a common marble, and the balsam is collected by tapping the larger ones at the bottom with a knife, and bringing pressure to bear upon the top, while the thick fluid runs slowly down into a little tin vessel, whose lip is firmly pressed against the bark below.
All over Grandfather is a scattered growth of red spruce (Picea Rubra), which the natives call tamarack. It is so much like the balsam that person who do not investigate pass them for the same; but the resin of the spruce does not blister, and the needles of the foliage are round and fluvid green, while those of the balsam are flat and emerald (Dugger, 1934, p. 81).
That is one reason given for why people in the area called Fraser fir she-balsam and red spruce, he-balsam (Kephart, 1913/1987, p.369): the Frasers had resin blisters that could be milked. Of course, I’ve also heard people say that the reason was because spruce cones hang down.
Big time logging hit the spruce forests of the southern Appalachians in the early 1900s. According to McGraw (1981), “By the beginning of the twentieth century, spruce had become one of the most important woods in the eastern United States.” As a timber tree Fraser fir was considered of little value because of the relatively low structural strength of the wood and the poor pulp yields.
The most extensive single use (of red spruce), fully half the annual cut, was used for the making of paper, principally news stock.
On account of the resonant quality of the wood and its even structure, spruce was generally considered to be the best wood for piano sounding boards, as well as for musical instruments in general…
During World War I, the Carolina Spruce Company would cut spruce timber from Mt. Mitchell and mill it into 30-foot-long clear lumber for use in constructing airplanes.
In the virgin spruce forests of Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, the boom years of the ‘big-time’ logging began prior to the Great War and continued until after the Great Depression (McGraw, 1981, p.13)
The logging companies were a “bevy of northern corporations (‘Carpetbaggers of the Woods,’ one historian has called them’)” (Silver, 2003, p. 137). Carolina Spruce (based in Philadelphia), Brown Brothers Lumber also from Pennsylvania, the Mount Mitchell Company from Chicago, Champion Coated Paper from Ohio, and Dickey and Campbell from Virginia, all carved out portions of the Blacks without caring what they left behind as it wasn’t their native State (Silver, 2003, p.137).
The forest that was being logged was amazing. “Newspapers reported that most of the spruces, firs and hardwoods cut between 1912 and 1913 were ‘straight as an arrow and from one hundred to one hundred and twenty-five feet in height’” (Silver, 2003, p. 145).
The logging and mining would make boom towns of small communities in Avery County and elsewhere.
If we could travel back in time, perhaps fifty or seventy-five years ago, many of us would be shocked at the level of development that took place in Avery County. Many of the communities that now exist in little more than name were thriving commercial hubs, with schools, businesses, movie theaters and roller skating rinks. Almost all of those are now gone. While Avery County would not be formed until 1911, Branson’s North Carolina Business Directory for 1896 found four hotels, sixteen general stores, including the Elk Park Boot and Shoe Company and Cornelius Teal’s drugstore in Linville; four manufacturing plants, including a furniture manufactory in Linville, a sash, door and blinds manufactory in Elk Park, and a blacksmith and wheelwright and building contractor on Dark Ridge; and another half a dozen mills (Hardy, 2007, p. 61).
Schwarzkopf and Silver both recount in detail the logging that occurred on one of Fraser fir’s most famous homes, Mt. Mitchell. Of course, Mount Mitchell proper – the very highest pick of the Black Mountains – was untouched by loggers – not because it was so inaccessible, but because the trees at the summit were mostly Fraser fir and stunted by the winds (Silver, 2003). Still, the very top of the mountain surrounded by denuded slopes was seen and commented on by many. Mount Mitchell, named for Elisha Mitchell who had died there, had become an almost sacred place known to all North Carolinians. A quotation from the August 1913 Asheville Citizen is as follows:
From a standpoint of commercialism, the wonderful activity of this district, felling these great monarchs of the forest, cutting them into short lengths, transporting them to the mill, cutting them into lumber, distributing them in the various building channels, affords a scene of intense interest and thrills the being with a sense of development and progress, turning nature’s resources into money – the man-created standard of value.
Think of it! Within another twelve months the magnificent forest of spruce and balsam on the slopes of Mt. Mitchell, the highest point east of the Rockies, 6,711 feet and the pride of the entire eastern section of the United States will fall before the axe of the lumberman to be turned into money! (“Large lumber deal at Black Mountain, Asheville Citizen-Times, October 8, 1913, Schwarzkopf, 1985, p. 86)
Not only was logging denuding the mountain, but the fires that resulted were having catastrophic effect. Schwarzkopf writes:
There also existed scientific arguments that provided additional strength to the movement to save the Mt. Mitchell area. State forester J. S. Holmes, the North Carolina Forestry Association, and other individuals and groups were especially concerned about the effects of fires that followed the logging. The fires were most often of two types: those that were purposely set by the logging companies to clear off highly flammable slash (debris) from their landholdings, and those that were ignited accidentally, most often from sparks from railroad engines. In either case a consuming fire was often the result. These fires were of such intensity that they not only destroyed all vegetation in an area, but also burned the soil to depths of up to one foot. This destruction of the soil and the seed source made it highly unlikely that natural reforestation of the spruce-fir forest would take place (Schwarzkopf, 1985, p. 88).
According to Leon S. Minckler (1940) of the Appalachian Forest Experiment Station:
Not only did fire destroy spruce seed in the ground and advanced reproduction but, in many places, rendered the site incapable of supporting forest growth for an indefinite length of time. On the higher elevations the soil is usually very shallow and composed mostly of organic matter. A typical tree in such a forest is born, lives, and dies in a soil literally created by its ancestors. A hot fire consumes part or all of such a soil and water erosion does the rest. The severity of some of this soil destruction is shown by old spruce stumps perched on top of the ground in their original positions with the whole root system exposed, and the present ground level often a foot or more below the bottom of the stump and the main roots. In such cases it is clear that a foot or more of organic soil, the soil as far as spruce is concerned, has been destroyed or removed (Minckler, 1940, p. 651).
In fact, it was fire control that was the impetus John Holmes, North Carolina’s first state forester, needed to get protection for the mountain (Silver, 2003). Fire control was something the commercial loggers couldn’t be expected to put money towards, but that the state could do. In 1915, Governor Craig stopped logging on Mt. Mitchell and made it the first North Carolina State Park, even though Craig had given a speech two years before praising the ingenuity of the Dickey and Campbell/Mount Mitchell Railway at its official opening (Silver, 2003, p. 142). For this, Mount Craig which is in the same range as Mount Mitchell, was named after him. The preservation of Mt. Mitchell was the first step in the eventual preservation of all the natural stands of Fraser fir.
Minckler went on to describe studies which began in 1923 by E. H. Frothingham and Clarence F. Korstian to replant sites on Mount Mitchell with commercial timber. From 1923 through 1931, 20 species of conifers were planted in 78 plots of 100 trees each. He goes on to summarize:
Southern balsam fir showed the best survival and growth of all species, but its wide use in large-scale reforestation programs for timber production is questionable because of its comparatively poor quality as lumber and limited market outlets. In spite of these drawbacks, however, it should have a real place in plantings, where recreational and watershed protection values are of primary consideration as they are on much of the cutover spruce-type of the Southern Appalachians (Minckler, 1940, p. 653-654).
Mount Mitchell State park’s first full-time employee, forest warden D. L. Moser, would end up helping to reestablish the forest on the mountain. “Aided by his son and other part-time employees, the new warden began collecting ‘cones from the spruce and balsam trees’ for ‘an experiment in artificial regeneration of the spruce forests’” (Silver, 2003, p. 168). Moser would end up replanting some 105 acres of state property. “Less concerned about producing marketable timber, park wardens relied mostly on Fraser fir to refurbish Mount Mitchell” (Silver, 2003, p. 171).
Fraser fir wood did come into play in the logging of another mountaintop, the Roan. Located between North Carolina and Tennessee, Roan Mountain was logged primarily by “Champion Coated Paper Company – later called the Champion Fibre Company and the Champion Paper” according to Jennifer Bauer Laughlin in Roan Mountain: A Passage of Time (1999, p. 126). Trees on the Roan were also massive. “It was not uncommon to find logs whose diameter was nearly five feet” according to E. G. Britton (Vance/Britton, 2002).
Champion constructed the Board Road made “entirely of three-inch-thick balsam boards laid across supports that looked like stilts” (Laughlin, 1999, p. 129-131). One man that Laughlin interviewed remembered driving a truck backwards on the road so that the fully-loaded truck could be driven out forwards. “The Board Road wound for several miles around both sides of the mountain, and it must have been a harrowing midair ride for drivers in their ponderous, log-laden trucks” (Laughlin, 1999, p. 131). The road did collapse several times under full trucks but according to workers, no one was ever seriously injured.
According to Laughlin, “Champion’s logging operations on Roan Mountain continued until 1937. All trees larger than six inches in diameter were removed” (1999, p. 131-132). Even many of the rhododendrons that the Roan is famous for were dug and shipped off the mountain.
Roan Mountain was purchased by the US Forest Service in 1941 and in 1959 the Tennessee legislature made Roan Mountain a State park with additional purchases added in the 1970s.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, established in 1934, preserved the natural stands around Clingman’s Dome. Natural stands of Fraser fir in Richland-Balsam and Plott-Balsam were preserved with the Blue Ridge Parkway. There was a great deal of debate over whether the Parkway should take the route through North Carolina or Tennessee, but in the end North Carolina won rights to the project. Construction on the Parkway began in late 1935 and continued until completion around Grandfather Mountain in 1987.
Mount Rogers was also conserved through the establishment of Grayson Highlands State Park in 1965 and National Recreation Area in 1966. Grandfather Mountain was destined to become a privately owned park, which has now been purchased by the State of North Carolina and in 2009 became the state’s 34th state park.
The mountaintops which are the homes of Fraser fir and red spruce are now preserved. Currently the spruce-fir forests make up an estimated 60,000 acres (McGraw, 1980). In 1994, Arnold presented a table showing the current the land ownership of Fraser fir’s natural stands. These include the Great Smoky Mountains – 100% National Park; the Black Mountains – 51% National Forest, 16% State Park, 6% Blue Ridge Parkway, and 27% private land; the Balsam Mountains – 46% National Forest, 29% Blue Ridge Parkway, and 25% private land; Roan Mountain – 100% National Forest and Roan Mountain State Park in Tennessee; Mount Rogers – 98% Nation Forest and Grayson Highlands State Park, and 2% private; and Grandfather Mountain –98% private (now State Park), 2% Blue Ridge Parkway (Arnold, 1994).
Prepared by Jill Sidebottom, Ph.D.
Area Extension Forestry Specialist, Mountain Conifer IPM
NCSU College of Natural Resources
NC Cooperative Extension Service
Horticultural Crops Research & Extension Center
455 Research Drive
Mills River, NC 28759
Phone: 828.684.3562 ~ Fax: 828.684.8715
Web Crafter: Anne S. Napier and Jill R. Sidebottom
Updated June 20, 2011