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At risk wild, W.Va. fir flourishes farm-raised

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A rare West Virginia fir variety that is thriving on Christmas tree farms across the nation is fighting for survival on its home turf in the state's northeastern highlands.

The Canaan fir, also known as the West Virginia balsam fir, is a distinct variety of the northern balsam fir. The compact, symmetrical evergreens with soft, aromatic needles and trunks bearing nodules of sap were known as blister pines to settlers in the five scattered pockets where the firs naturally grow.

Blister Swamp, the source of the East Fork of the Greenbrier River, is one locale, as is Blister Run, a swampy creek atop Cheat Mountain. Stonecoal Run, which spills off Dolly Sods, is another site where the firs can be found, as is a section of Virginia's Hawksbill Mountain, the highest peak in Shenandoah National Park. But the place with the largest population of the fir is Tucker County's Canaan Valley, where its potential as a commercial Christmas tree was first envisioned and tested.

Canaan firs are believed to be holdovers from the subarctic climate that prevailed over much of what is now the Potomac Highlands of West Virginia at the end of the Pleistocene era. They are found at elevations above 3,000 feet, where the state's coolest temperatures prevail, and grow in or adjacent to highland bogs, which protected them from the devastating wildfires that followed early 20th Century clear-cutting.

"There's no doubt in my mind that prior to that logging, it intermixed with red spruce in more high-elevation stands, probably in the wetter areas," said James Brown, the Richwood native, WVU grad and retired Ohio State forestry researcher instrumental in making the Canaan fir a commercially successful Christmas tree.

Canaan fir pollen turned up in a study of sphagnum bog content at Cranberry Glades in Pocahontas County, he said.

Brown first came in contact with the tree during a field trip to Tucker County in the 1960s, when he was a student at WVU. During the trip, he met Martin Luther "Red" Cooper, a former Davis mayor and contractor who operated a farm in Canaan Valley. Since the 1950s, Cooper had been collecting seeds from the cones of the aromatic firs he encountered while roaming the high-altitude bog country near his farm. He began germinating the seeds at home, planting seedlings at his farm, and by the 1960s, began selling his domesticated Canaan Valley firs as Christmas trees.

"Red said those trees really needed to be looked at for their potential as Christmas trees," Brown said. "He kept bugging me to do something with them, to try growing them at WVU. ... You could tell they had promise as Christmas trees simply by looking at them -- they just looked like Christmas trees."

But Brown didn't really start working with the Canaan fir until the early 1970s, when he left the faculty at WVU for a research position at Ohio State. Knowing that the Canaan firs performed well in wet soil, he conducted a study to see how well the trees did in the slow-draining clay soil types that prevailed in Ohio's Christmas tree farm country.

At OSU, "I had a wide variety of field locations to work with, a staff to help get the trees in, and the technical assistance I needed to support a study," Brown said. By planting the West Virginia seedlings at sites running the length and breadth of the Buckeye State, he covered a number of climate and soil variables.

The study showed that the Canaan fir flourished in the damp, poor-draining Ohio soils, and outperformed the Fraser fir, the nation's most popular Christmas tree species. The West Virginia trees produced more lateral limbs than Frasers or other types of balsams, and as an added bonus, produced new needles later in the year than other species, making them less prone to frost damage.

In the early 1980s, Ohio Christmas tree growers Darwin Pound and Jack Schmidt Jr. formed a partnership to begin raising Canaan fir trees and seedlings for transplant produced from the West Virginia fir seed in their home state. Their Canaan Fir Tree Co. is still operating and shipping transplant seedlings to growers across the country.

"My understanding is that it's now the No. 1 tree being grown and sold in Ohio," Brown said. "The Fraser fir is probably still considered the Cadillac of Christmas trees, but the Canaan fir is being grown commercially across the Midwest and in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Its looks, the density of its limbs and its adaptability have made it a very popular tree."

But at about the same time that Pound and Schmidt began mass-producing Canaan firs for Christmas tree growers, the trees entered what could prove to be an irreversible decline in the wild.

The balsam woolly adelgid, a tiny aphid-like pest, began appearing in Canaan Valley and the Canaan fir's three other pockets of habitation in West Virginia in the early 1990s.

The sharp-billed pests are believed to have entered the country from Europe in the early 1900s, and gradually spread northwestward by traveling in wind gusts or aboard passing birds while in their crawler stage. Once attached to a balsam fir, the adelgids suck the sap and the nutrients it contains from the tree, more often than not causing it to die.

"Now, easily 80 percent of the wild Canaan balsam fir trees in West Virginia are dead," said Rodney Bartgis, state director of the West Virginia Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

"We don't seem to be seeing the same level of mortality on the young trees as we do on the old ones," said Bartgis, "so we're hoping that many of the young trees will stay alive long enough to develop cones, so the trees can at least keep surviving here."

Young Canaan firs face an additional threat from deer, who love the taste of their needles, while shunning red spruce and many other evergreens.

In areas where Canaan fir seedlings should have grown to saplings, "you're struck by finding a lot of foot-tall, bonsai-like firs that have been nipped and nipped again by deer," said Amy Cimarolli, director of science and stewardship at The Nature Conservancy.

In areas where young trees have been fenced in to protect them from deer, Canaan fir can grow 8 inches a year, Cimarolli said. Several such deer "exclosures" have been built in Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge and Canaan Valley State Park to protect young balsam fir. At Blister Swamp, a private landowner, in cooperation with The Nature Conservancy, the Mountain Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has fenced off 40 acres to keep deer and livestock out of prime balsam fir habitat.

While a tree that survived on its own in isolated pockets since the end of the last Ice Age nearly 12,000 years ago may need special help to make it through the next century in the wild, its future is guaranteed on Christmas tree farms from Pennsylvania to Missouri.

For Brown, who helped secure the Canaan fir's future as a farm-raised tree, working with the evergreen "has been a lot of fun. Sometimes, research doesn't go anywhere. It's always rewarding to work on something that has a positive impact on the way people make a living."

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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