The Fraser Fir - The Comeback Kid in the Smoky Mountains

August 17, 2021


Photographer: Patti Weeks & Boni Boswell  

Summary Author: Patti Weeks

The Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) tree, native to the southern Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee, found sanctuary in high, cool elevations as the land warmed following our last Ice Age. Due to the inadvertent and unfortunate introduction of a small, wing-less insect called the balsam woolly adelgid (Adelges piceae) to North America from Europe in the early 1900s, fir trees in Canada and the northeastern U.S. were gradually being killed by the destructive insect. This invasive pest eventually spread to the dense southern Appalachian spruce-fir forests. The infection of the susceptible Fraser Fir was first detected in the late 1950s, and the trees were nearly decimated by the 1980s, with the vast majority of adult trees succumbing to the disease. Land managers have found this small noxious insect, with its multi-phase life cycle, extremely difficult to control. They began to think they were seeing the demise of the Fraser Fir, which has no natural defense against foreign invaders. However, after more than three decades of managing and monitoring the high Appalachian forests in the Smoky Mountains, foresters are seeing a comeback of the Fraser Fir! They are discovering that young healthy firs, as seen in the top photo, are more resistant to the woolly adelgid than mature trees. IMG_6298

There are still many scenes in the high Appalachians that reveal the pencil-like deceased mature firs, poking up above the dense green forest line—as seen in the second photo of the pathway to a stunning 360° view from the observation tower atop the 6,643-foot (2,025 m) high Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Nevertheless, the Fraser Fir’s resurgence brings hope, not only for foresters, conservationists and visitors to the park, but also for the Christmas tree industry farmers, who produce fifty million Christmas trees annually in North Carolina. Researchers are also trying to produce firs that are genetically resistant to the woolly adelgid, so healthy trees can be reintroduced to natural stands. Unfortunately, the new threat to the Fraser Fir now is climate change, which is adding stress to the already vulnerable species.

Photo details: Top—SONY DSC-HX400V: 135.23 mm.; f/5.6; 1/250s.; ISO 125; Bottom— iPhone 7: 3.99mm; f/1.8; 1/1153s; ISO 20.

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