All About the Fraser Fir: Uses, Conservation Status, and More

How much do you know about this beloved Christmas tree species?

Fraser Fir Christmas trees for sale in a snow covered lot.

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The Fraser fir is a high-altitude conifer tree related to the northern balsam fir. Abies fraseri occupies a very restricted native range in the southern Appalachian mountains' higher elevations. Acid rain and the woolly adelgid are taking a direct and high toll on naturally occurring stands of Fraser fir. For these reasons, it is endangered in its native habitat.

People using Fraser firs as Christmas trees should purchase them from Christmas tree farms and growers rather than harvest them from a forest themselves. Though it's not a balsam fir, it's sometimes called a southern balsam or she-balsam. It also goes by eastern fir, Fraser balsam fir, and southern fir. The lineal taxonomy is Pinopsida > Pinales > Pinaceae > Abies fraseri (Pursh) Poir

How to Identify a Fraser Fir

Close up of Fraser fir branches and needles against blue sky

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To successfully identify a Fraser fir, you should know how to identify a fir tree in general. Firs have cones shaped like cylinders that stand erect. They disintegrate before falling to the ground. Their needles are soft with blunt, not sharp, tips. Unlike spruces, they have no needles on the bottoms of their twigs.

The Fraser fir has a distinct distribution. Its native habitat is limited to high elevations in the Appalachian Mountains of southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina, and eastern Tennessee. It is the only fir endemic to the southern Appalachians.

The largest tree on record measures almost 34 inches DBH ("diameter at breast height" refers to the diameter at four feet off the ground). It's 87 feet tall and has a crown spread of 52 feet. A more typical size range, however, is 50 to 60 feet and less than 12 inches DBH.

The slightly upward-angled branches can help you identify a Fraser fir. This tree gives off a pleasant smell like its relative, the balsam fir.

Conservation Status

The endangered Fraser fir is most threatened by an invasive insect that arrived in the States from Europe in the '50s—the balsam woolly adelgid, an aphid relative. After a tree is infected with this insect, it starves or dies by something else after it's been weakened. By the '80s, millions of trees had been lost to the balsam woolly adelgid.

Its demise will have dire consequences on rare wildlife such as the northern flying squirrel, Weller’s salamander, the spruce-fir moss spider, mountain ash, and rock gnome lichen, which rely on the tree for survival.

It's unclear how many are left today, but the last time the IUCN assessed the Fraser fir in 2011, its population was decreasing.

Use as a Christmas Tree

Evergreen tree getting wrapped on Christmas tree farm

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To give an idea of how popular the Fraser fir is as a Christmas tree, the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association says its state alone grows 58 million a year for this purpose.

The species' fragrance, shape, strong limbs, soft needles, and ability to retain those needles for a long time when cut are some reasons why it's a Christmas favorite. Its slender growth habit makes it all the more attractive to decorators working with small spaces. 

The Fraser fir has been used more times as the Blue Room Christmas tree (the official Christmas tree of the White House) than any other type of tree. In the U.K., it is grown in plantations in Scotland and sold by the thousands across the island. 

To start in the Christmas tree farming business, a farmer needs to have a long view, as even five-year-old seedlings may take a decade before they can be harvested and sold. Frasier firs take about 12 years to reach a height of six to seven feet.

Fraser firs require well-drained soil and an acidic pH of five to six. They need a lot of space around them for ease of care and for air circulation, which helps reduce the threat of a disease infestation. Yearly maintenance includes watering and feeding, trimming to guide shape, and weed control.

Caring for a Fraser Fir Christmas Tree

Family setting up a Christmas tree in the living room

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If you want your Fraser fir to look great throughout the 12 days of Christmas (and much longer), the most important thing is to keep it watered. When you first bring it home, saw off half an inch to one inch from the trunk to open up the pores. Do not saw at an angle. Place the tree away from a heat source to keep it from drying out, and water it daily. 

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Should you buy a Fraser fir as a Christmas tree?

    Fraser firs make great Christmas trees, and farming them for this purpose is relatively harmless. Just make sure that you purchase your tree from a grower (preferably one who uses sustainable farming practices) and avoid harvesting one from the wild.

  • Why are Fraser firs so popular as Christmas trees?

    Fraser firs smell great, like balsam firs, and their upward-turning branches and soft needles are perfect for hanging ornaments. They also keep their needles for a long time, but that doesn't mean you should keep your tree up long after the holiday passes.

  • How can you help save the Fraser fir?

    The Missouri Botanical Garden is leading research on how best to grow the Fraser fir in an effort to conserve wild populations. To support its efforts, consider donating to the organization.

View Article Sources
  1. Farjon, A. 2013. "Abies fraseri." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2013: e.T32101A2810241. Accessed on 17 June 2022.

  2. "Index of Species Information: Abies fraseri." United States Forest Service Fire Effects Information System.

  3. "Fraser Fir Trees." North Carolina Christmas Tree Association.