Gardens of the Cross Timbers: My Amazing Tree

·5 min read

On the twelfth day of Christmas, as twelve drummers drummed, I took down the tree. This year the Fraser fir was sparsely decorated, but draped in ample strands of gold tinsel garland and lights the color of rainbows. The 6-foot-tall tree had spent 7 to 10 years growing in Michigan. After harvest, it with other evergreens were trucked to the Catholic Church tree lot. The trunk was trimmed and the fir transported to our home where it was placed in a pail of water outside the greenhouse. There the tree remained for a few weeks. Once inside the house, the fir stood straight and proud in a tree stand filled with water with nary a decoration in sight. The cats and I enjoyed having a small evergreen in the front room.

A Fraser fir.
A Fraser fir.

The tree drank water every day, and dropped few of its soft blue green needles. The Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) is actually a native of the Appalachian Mountains. Botanist John Fraser from the Scottish Highlands (1750-1811) actively pursued plant collecting, exploring North America, the West Indies and even Russia. Along the way he encountered pirates, shipwrecks, slavery, escaped convicts, and some hostile natives.

John Fraser also had consumption (tuberculosis). He sailed to Newfoundland in 1780 to regain his health. In his first expedition (1785-1787), he studied plant life in the southern US. A second expedition (1788) found him trekking across the Blue Ridge area of Virginia to South Carolina and Georgia, collecting species of Magnolias, Rhododendrons, Phlox and other plants. These were sent back to Fraser’s plant nursery, herbarium and gardeners in London for evaluation, observation and propagation.

Forty to fifty species of true firs grow worldwide, but Balsam, Canaan and Fraser grow in a line from north to south in the US Eastern Seaboard. Balsam fir extends into Canada, Canaan firs grow in the mixed ecotone area of West Virginia and Fraser firs are found in the southern region of the Appalachian Mts. Not only do Frasers receive considerable rain (over 80 inches per year), they spend 35% of their time in thick clouds. Nevertheless, the trees top out at 50 feet (some 80 feet) and can live 150 years.

The Fraser fir is a remnant evergreen from the last ice age. 18,000 years ago when temperatures were lower, the evergreen forests were lush and quite extensive in the US. The temperatures began to warm, driving the trees to higher cooler elevations. Firs may have nearly disappeared, but about 4,000 years ago the climate again cooled and, voilà, the Fraser fir, a new species, appeared with the red spruce (Picea rubra). The Fraser range soon extended from Missouri to the Carolinas. Spruce/fir forests in southern Appalachia of North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia now only grow at the highest points. If only natural fires from lightning were the cause, the high elevation high humidity forests could go a thousand years without a burn. After settlers arrived, tree numbers were drastically reduced through clear cutting and logging. Entire mountains were denuded. Man-made fires took their toll.

A decorated Fraser Fir tree.
A decorated Fraser Fir tree.

What saved the Fraser fir was the questionable quality of its wood with low structural strength, poor pulp yields and lack of market outlets. Many mountain tops throughout the Smokey Mountains have been turned into national forests and parks, state parks or put into private ownership. Spruce/fir forests today cover about 60,000 acres, a far cry from the 2 million acres of long ago, but the firs are still alive.

Fraser firs close their stomata (pores that control gas exchange and water vapor) under stress, when the humidity drops, or in severe cold or strong winds. Lowest recorded temperature on Grandfather Mountain in the Smokies (where Fraser firs live) was a minus 32 degrees below zero. Winds have been clocked at over 200 mph. When cut at tree farms, no doubt incredibly stressful as well, the Fraser fir will tightly close the stomata which limits needle loss. The reason the Fraser fir makes an excellent Yule tree.

Before the Christmas tree farm explosion, Fraser firs were harvested for firewood (produces high heat and fewer sparks). The Cherokees looked upon the fir resin as a panacea for internal ailments and flesh wounds. The resin collected in small blisters on the bark and could be tapped and drained. The fragrant antiseptic oil was even used as a glue or rodent repellant.

North Carolina, Oregon and Michigan grow and sell the most Christmas trees. Further south, the evergreens struggle in too many warm days (Florida) or root rot problems (Georgia). Some tree farms in moderately hospitable climates are experimenting with coppicing established trees. Stump culture. Cut the tree back to a stump and allow three or four sprouts to develop. Trees may be harvested every five years. Some coppiced evergreens in Japan are over 500 years old.

The 41-foot-tall Fraser Fir from the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina was chosen for the U.S. Capital Christmas tree in 1974. A 50-foot-tall Fraser fir from Pisgah was selected for 1998. That tree was lit by Newt Gingrich at 5:30 pm December 8th with music by the Congressional Chorus and New Day Singers from Asheville, North Carolina. Ten thousand blue, clear and amber lights and 4,000 ornaments made by North Carolina school kids were placed throughout the tree. The fir glowed from 5 pm to midnight until January 2nd, 1999.

Evergreens are teetering on the edge in many areas as the climate heats up, increasing insect and fungal problems. The Fraser fir is listed as endangered in its native range. Think on this. Central Oklahoma thousands of years ago was a forest of spruce that reached nearly to the Gulf Coast. As the climate warmed, the cold loving trees shifted northward. The difference between then and now? Earth’s climates are changing and warming at such a record pace, the living organisms (including us) have no time to adapt. Are you enjoying the drought?

This article originally appeared on The Shawnee News-Star: Gardesn of the Cross Timbers: My Amazing Tree

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