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Open-grown tree on Mt. Mitchell, about 6 m tall [C.J. Earle, 2004.10.25].


Bark on a tree in densely shaded forest on Mt. Mitchell; in more open forests barks is often totally obscured by lichen and moss epiphytes. Tree about 20 cm. diam. [C.J. Earle, 2004.10.25].

line drawing

Seed cone and foliage (Britton and Brown 1913).


Sun foliage on a tree near the summit of Mt. Mitchell [C.J. Earle, 2004.10.25].


Branchlets and underside of foliage from a tree on Mt. Michell [C.J. Earle, 2004.10.25].


Foliage of a tree on Mt. Mitchell - upper side [C.J. Earle, 2004.10.27].


Foliage of a tree on Mt. Mitchell - lower side [C.J. Earle, 2004.10.27].


Fraser fir forest on the north facing summit slopes of Mt. Mitchell, North Carolina. The snags predominantly represent mature trees killed by the balsam woolly adelgid in the 1960's and 1970's [C.J. Earle, 2004.10.25].


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Conservation status

Abies fraseri

(Pursh) Poiret 1817

Common names

Fraser fir, southern balsam fir (Hunt 1993), balsam, she-balsam.

Taxonomic notes

"Some have argued that Fraser fir is at the end of a disjunct cline of balsam fir [Abies balsamea] and perhaps does not deserve separate specific status. A.E. Matzenko took the opposite view, classifying Fraser fir and balsam fir in different taxonomic series of the genus" (Hunt 1993). Farjon (1990) assigns both species to Section Balsamea but places Abies balsamea in subsection Laterales and A. fraseri in subsection Medianae. He also notes the existence of a natural hybrid of the two species, Abies × phanerolepis (Fern.) Liu, occurring where the ranges overlap in Virginia. The hybrid is distinguished by its seed cones, which are small (2-2.5 × 1.5-2 cm), with exserted bracts much smaller than those of A. fraseri.

Synonymy (Farjon 1998):


Trees to 25 m tall and 75 cm dbh, with a open, symmetrical, pyramidal to spire-shaped crown. Bark gray, thin, smooth, with age developing appressed reddish scales, later turning gray. Branches diverge from the trunk at right angles; twigs are opposite, pale yellow-brown, with a reddish pubescence. Buds exposed, light brown, conic, small, resinous, apex acute; basal scales short, broad, equilaterally triangular, glabrous, resinous, margins entire, apex sharp-pointed. Leaves 1.2-2.5 cm × 1.5-2 mm, 2-ranked, particularly in lower parts of tree, to spiraled, flexible; cross section flat, grooved on the upper side; odor turpentinelike, strong; lower surface with (8-)10(-12) stomatal rows on each side of the midrib; upper surface dark lustrous green, sometimes slightly glaucous, with 0-3 stomatal rows at midleaf, these more numerous toward leaf apex; apex slightly notched to rounded; resin canals large, ± median, away from margins and midway between upper and lower epidermal layers. Pollen cones at pollination red-yellow or yellow-green. Seed cones cylindric, 3.5-6 × 2.5-4 cm, dark purple overlaid with yellowish green bracts, sessile, apex round; scales ca. 0.7-1 × 1-1.3 cm, pubescent; bracts exserted and reflexed over cone scales. Seeds 4-5 × 2-3 mm, body brown; wing about as long as body, purple; cotyledons ca. 5. Wood pale brown with white sapwood. 2n=24. (Sargent 1922, Hunt 1993).

Distribution and Ecology

USA: Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia (the hybrid reported to also occur in West Virginia, in the Yew Mountains near Spruce Knob) at 1,200-2,038 m elevation in mountain forests, usually on north-facing slopes. Annual precipitation of 850-2,000 mm is distributed through the year, with heavy snowfall in the winter. There are many scattered populations, usually forming mixed stands with Picea rubens, sometimes Betula papyrifera, and an understory commonly depauperate, rich in mosses, or dominated by Ericaceous shrubs (Farjon 1990, Hunt 1993). See also Thompson et al. (1999). Hardy to Zone 4 (cold hardiness limit between -34.3°C and -28.9°C) (Bannister and Neuner 2001).

I have compiled the range map below using 81 herbarium records from the online database at the NCU Herbarium. These resulted in 48 verifiably different locations. I was not able to verify the identifications, but this is the only Abies native to North Carolina or Tennessee. Nearly every record states that the collection was made near the summit of the mountain, except for one record that identifies a collection in a bog or fen near Celo, NC.

Distribution data shown in red polygons are from USGS (1999).

Fraser fir has been decimated in many areas by the attacks of an introduced insect pest, the balsam wooly adelgid. The species is classified "vulnerable" due to the depredations of this pest. First introduced in New England in 1908, the adelgid reached Mt. Mitchell (highest point in the eastern United States and formerly home to a splendid Abies fraseri - Picea rubens forest) in 1957 and has since killed at least 80% of the mature Fraser firs on the mountain. The adelgid kills the tree by inducing a reaction in which the tree blocks sap flow in its xylem. The affected wood, called "rotholtz" (red heart) is very dense and has a red color (source: interpretive museum at Mt. Mitchell summit, 2004.10.25).

Big tree

The Eastern Native Tree Society (2012.09.18) cites records of a tree 66.3 cm dbh and 12.22 m tall in September 2005, in Mount Mitchell State Park, NC; and also of a tree 36.4 cm dbh and 21.61 m tall in June 2007, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC. American Forests (2012.09.18) cites a tree in a graveyard at Harrisonburg, VA, that is really a specimen of Abies nordmannii.


An unsupported figure of about 150 years is given by (Burns and Honkala (1990).


Several studies have examined growth decline and growth trends. Search the Bibliography of Dendrochronology for details.


Once upon at time: "The fragrant branches are popular with travelers, for beds" (Dallimore et al. (1967)). Due to its rarity and general decline, the species is no longer exploited.


I have seen the tree on Clingman's Dome in Tennessee and near the summit of Mt. Mitchell. Mt. Mitchell is easily accessible by paved road; I think Clingman's Dome is too, but I was there in December and the trip involved quite a long walk on a road closed by drifting snow.


The species is named for its discoverer, John Fraser (1750-1811), an ardent collector of North American plants.


Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. Illustrated flora of the northern states and Canada. Vol. 1: 63. Image downloaded from the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database, accessed 2004.12.23.

See also

FEIS database.

Last Modified 2014-12-05