The Canaan fir is a type of Balsam
found only in the highlands of West Virginia
and Virginia. But many Christmas
tree farms in the region also grow Canaan firs.
“The Christmas tree farmers started growing our firs from
ones that were first collected in Canaan
Valley and that’s why they’re
called Canaan fir,” Rodney Bartgis, state director of
The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia,
“Canaan fir has some of the good qualities of the
balsam fir up north and some of the good qualities of the Fraser fir that are
found farther south.”
“The needles are not as sharp as they are on like a spruce
tree from say a red spruce or a Norway spruce that are sold for Christmas trees,”
“Nor are the needles as long as they are for pine trees like
white pine that are sold for Christmas trees and they have a very aromatic
smell which is, balsam is one of the well-known scents at Christmas time.”
While Canaan firs flourish at
Christmas tree farms, in their native Canaan
Valley they are struggling. That’s
because of an Asian insect called the Balsam woolly adelgid, which Bartgis said
started becoming prominent in the state in the late 1980’s.
“And since then it’s wiped out most of our wild balsam
firs,” he said. “There’s probably only about 20 percent if that many of our
wild fir trees left in West Virginia.”
Bartgis said in some places most of the adult Canaan
fir are dead, but there are still some to be found in Canaan
“If you go to Canaan
Valley today you can still find
fairly large fir trees in the wild but they are certainly becoming fewer and
fewer,” he said.
The Nature Conservancy is one of several groups, including
the Mountain Institute, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service,
which have been active in trying to save the trees.
“In Pocahontas County at Blister Swamp we’ve worked with the
family that owns that site to both fence cattle out of the wetland where the
fir trees had been as well as deer out of that wetland and reintroduce young
fir trees that were raised from cones that were gathered from the few remaining
live mature trees at that site,” Bargtis said.
Similar measures are being taken in Canaan
Valley at the National Wildlife
Refuge and Timberline Ski Resort.
Bargtis said even though Canaan fir
is cultivated widely by tree farms, it’s important to save the trees that grow
in the wild in the highlands of West Virginia
because they are an important contributor to that area’s eco system and part of
the state’s natural heritage.