"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 rsteelham...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.