Saving America’s Endangered Christmas Tree

Although a common sight in living rooms across the country every holiday season, one of America’s most popular Christmas trees is under threat. However, the Missouri Botanical Garden is working to safeguard the future of the Fraser fir.

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Threats Facing the Fraser Fir

The Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) is one of the most popular evergreens for holiday decorating, noted for its pleasant scent, pyramidal shape, and needle retention. It is grown extensively in cultivation—in North Carolina alone, some 50 million Fraser firs are grown for use as Christmas trees.

But wild populations of these trees are much harder to come by. Fraser firs occur in just a handful of isolated pockets in the Appalachian mountain range in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, and the species is listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List.

The main threat to these trees is an invasive insect known as the Balsam woolly adelgid (Adelges piceae). These humbugs have wiped out Fraser firs across much of their native range since arriving from Europe. Some 90% of the mature fir trees in Great Smoky Mountain National Park have been killed off in the past 50 years.

View from Clingmans Dome observation tower“View from Clingmans Dome observation tower” by Ben Ramsey is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The loss of these trees has a trickle-down effect in the ecosystem. The thinning forest canopy exposes underlying moss to more desiccation (drying out). A tiny tarantula known as the spruce-fir moss spider (Microhexura montivaga) depends on the moss for survival, and is very sensitive to any drying out. The spider was listed as a federally endangered species in 1995 as Fraser fir populations declined.

Luckily, there are ongoing efforts to protect historic populations of Fraser fir. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which encompasses much of the species’ native range, some of the mature trees are treated with an insecticidal soap to kill the adelgid. The Park Service has also collected seeds to grow seedlings in a dedicated preservation plantation.

Abies fraseri on Mount Rogers. Photo by Alanna Sanders.

In search of Christmas Tree Seeds

In 2019, horticulturists with the Missouri Botanical Garden made two trips to the Appalachian mountains in search of Fraser firs and other threatened plants.

The first trip in June focused on scouting the target species, to pinpoint their location for the collecting team’s return in the fall.

An early Christmas gift came in September, when the collection team located many of the target trees on Mount Rogers in southern Virginia. This particular population has so far been spared from the most devastating effects of the Balsam woolly adelgid. However, collecting the seed was not an easy feat.

Abies fraseri cones dripping with resin. Photo by Travis Hall.

To capture the genetic diversity of the population, the team needed to collect from as many trees as possible. But many of the cones were too far off the ground to reach by hand. And the ladders and step stools you might use to hang ornaments on a Fraser fir weren’t exactly tucked into a hallway closet on the top of this mountain.

Luckily, Garden horticulturist Travis Hall is a certified arborist and member of the Garden’s Tree Crew.  He was able to climb into the trees, collect the cones by hand, and minimize the potential loss of these important seeds. This seems like an opportune time to suggest to all the kids out there (and their parents), you can make a career out of climbing trees!

Horticulturist Travis Hall climbs a Fraser fir to collect cones. Photo by Alanna Sanders.

In total, the team was able to collect seed from more than 50 individual Fraser fir trees, from two distinct populations.

After returning from Virginia, the seeds were sent to the Missouri Botanical Garden Seed Bank at Shaw Nature Reserve. Seed Bank Manager Meg Englehart says the seed is difficult to clean because of small cavities filled with resin. But that sticky substance also gives the tree it’s trademark scent, so at least the work fills the lab with a pleasant holiday aroma.

Seeds of A. fraseri. Photo by Travis Hall.

Once cleaned and dried, the seed will be stored in freezers and available for future conservation efforts. In addition to preserving this genetic material in the seed bank, horticulture staff will look for opportunities to propagate the plant and incorporate it into the Garden’s public display.

Because of its unique native habitat in the cool and foggy Appalachian mountains, growing it here in St. Louis could prove to be a challenge. Indeed, most Fraser firs found in our local tree lots were raised in more hospitable climates before being cut and shipped here.

Of course, the Fraser fir seeds weren’t the only gift from these collection trips. The team was able to collect seeds and spores from more than 75 other species including orchids, lilies, ferns, and evergreens. About 30 of these species are new to the Garden’s living collection, and more than a dozen are already being propagated in the Garden greenhouses.

Cassidy Moody — Senior Digital Media Specialist

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