Fraser fir grows in popularity Christmas: If you're looking for the perfect tree, consider this Southern relative of the Canadian balsam.

November 24, 1996|By Glenn Morris | Glenn Morris,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

While the perfect Christmas tree is always in the eye of the beholder, some trees are more perfect than others. Leading the list, in my opinion, is the Fraser fir.

The Fraser fir not only looks like a Christmas tree when you first bring it in, it still looks like one when it's time to go out. In fact, these trees retain their needles long after their ability to absorb water ceases -- for six to eight weeks after being cut, sometimes longer.

Best of all, they look the part. A typical Fraser fir has a dark shiny-green color on top of the limbs while being slightly gray underneath. The 3/4 -inch-long needles are rounded at the end, curving slightly upward and outward from the stem. They're pliable, and they don't prick.

The tree has a balsam scent, slightly more pungent than pine, a nose-tingling fragrance reminiscent of potpourri. If the tree is warmed by sunlight, the released aromatic oils perfume a room.

Native of the southern Appalachian highlands, it is related to the Canadian balsam, which grows 900 miles farther north. Fraser firs came South with the last glacial epoch and adapted to cool, moist and misty reaches. Environmental degradation, mostly acid rain, threatens the pure natural stands of the tree that remain.

The fact that it responds well to cultivation makes agricultural officials enthusiastic about its future as a commercially grown Christmas tree. Some, in fact, predict it will be the No. 1 tree in the country by the year 2000.

This puts smiles on the faces of the approximately 3,000 tree farmers in the corrugated countryside of the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, where state universities have supported the cultivation of the Fraser fir for more than 30 years. The four northwest counties of North Carolina will ship nearly 9 million trees to distant hearths this year alone.

An average-sized Fraser fir Christmas tree is nearly 15 years old and has been fussed over for nearly every inch of its carefully manicured growth. A cycle of prune, feed and weed continues through the year, and each tree is visited an average of seven times a year by the grower.

Alfred Motsinger, owner, and assistant manager Andy Royall do it all at Pine Shadows Farm in Roaring Gap, N.C. They work 50 acres, none of it level. "We set out 5-year old seedlings that are 15-20 inches high, in an 8-foot grid," says Motsinger "That works out to about 6,000 trees an acre."

When the ground warms and growth starts, the "top" work begins: This means seeing that the tree has one dominant leader where the angel goes) and that the lateral branches (where the ornaments will hang) extend uniformly from the tree. "You shape them early," says Motsinger, "and sometimes they don't behave."

Sometimes the weather doesn't either. Drought visits the field; so does root rot; so do deer, which destroy trees by biting off the leaders. The grower continually shapes and directs the tree's growth with selective pruning. This makes the tree grow fuller than it would if unattended. The art of tree growing is to find that balance between a full look and sufficient openness for ornaments.

Profit, such as it is, on any tree comes about 10 years after planting.

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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