Posts Tagged ‘conifer’

Will Somebody Please Adopt This Tree?

Friday, December 12th, 2008

This year there seem to be more Fraser firs than ever for sale in my neighborhood, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. No big surprise. Woody plant expert Michael Dirr once called them the “Cadillac of Christmas Trees.” Fraser firs have a gorgeous pyramid shape and a profusion of soft, short needles arranged spirally around the branches. They also smell great. 

What is shocking is the stark contrast between the countless Fraser firs that line city streets, lending a festive air during the holidays, and the gray skeletons found in the tree’s native habitat. The species is endemic to the seven highest peaks in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia; it is found nowhere else in the world. But in the past fifty years the number of mature Fraser firs on these mountains has declined by as much as 91 percent. The species is threatened with extinction in the wild largely because of an introduced insect, the balsam wooly adelgid, which first appeared in the southern Appalachians in 1957. The insect attacks by entering the trunk of a tree through fissures in its bark that develop as it ages; two to seven years later, the tree is dead.

Another threat to the Fraser fir: As temperatures rise due to global warming, it has nowhere to go. It can’t migrate upward to cooler, higher habitat because it already grows at high elevations on those seven mountains, in forests believed to be ice age relicts. When the last of the Pleistocene glaciers retreated north, Fraser fir was left stranded on these mountaintops, which have climates similar to those of Maine and Quebec. 

Someday it may be possible to see Fraser fir only on Christmas tree farms, or frigid Gotham streets.

The species is in the National Collection of Endangered Plants, under the auspices of the Center for Plant Conservation, a coalition of botanical gardens. But Fraser fir deserves to live wild and free, outside the cultivated confines of a farm, a garden collection, or a seed bank. For a number of years, the National Park Service reportedly tried to control the balsam wooly adelgid at Clingman’s Dome in Tennessee, using the only effective control known to date — coating each limb of each tree with a mild soap. But this proved too time consuming and costly and was given up.

Scientists and government officials have their hands full with invasive pests and imperiled plants, not to mention budget cuts and a host of other impediments. But citizens can fill the gap. Another endangered native conifer, the Florida torreya, has a group of activists, the Torreya Guardians, advocating and acting on its behalf. Friends of the Fraser fir anyone?