By Matt Reese
As the last glaciers advanced south into what is now Ohio, there is evidence that a continuous stand of beautiful fir trees extended from Canada south to North Carolina along the Appalachian Mountains. As the climate warmed, much of this unbroken forest of fir was replaced with other tree species in the lower elevations, leaving only isolated pockets of fir stands on the mountaintops and in mountain bogs.
These trees stood, unknown by mankind for thousands of years, until Jim Brown, who would later become a professor and associate chair of forestry at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) took notice in the late 1960s. Over the next two decades Brown conducted extensive research into this newly discovered type of fir tree with the hopes of finding a tree suitable for Christmas tree production. He found this unique tree that was not a balsam fir and not a Fraser fir, but with characteristics of both, in four separate and isolated areas within around 50 miles of each other in West Virginia. He called the tree the West Virginia Balsam.
By the early 1980s, the Christmas tree industry in Ohio was well established. While pines and some spruces could be grown well in Ohio’s heavy clay soils, fir trees had not traditionally done well in many parts of the state. Fir trees tend to like well-drained soils and often suffered frost damage on the early season new growth in the spring. To make matters worse, the Christmas tree staple for Ohio, the Scotch pine, was suffering from disease and insect problems and consumer preference had started shifting to fir trees.
Brown’s research seemed to have found a potential solution to the problem.
“In the 1970s, Dr. Brown was working in West Virginia and came to Ohio at OARDC with the knowledge of this unique tree growing in the mountains,” said Jack Schmidt, of Timbuk Farms. “He identified three characteristics of the tree when compared to balsam fir and Fraser fir. It tolerates poorly drained soils, it has a later spring bud break and it has more lateral limbs, which allows the tree to be denser and salable sooner. And I was looking for a Christmas tree that was easier to grow.”
At Brown’s urging, Schmidt and others traveled to the beautiful Canaan Valley high up in the West Virginia Appalachians to learn more about the trees growing in the poorly drained mountain bogs. The seed source’s location provided the idea for the experimental tree’s new name.
“We went to look at the seed trees in the Canaan Valley and then went back to harvest a commercial quantity of seed to play with back at the farm,” Schmidt said. “And we commercialized the Canaan fir.”
In 1992, Schmidt and Ohio Christmas tree pioneer Darwin Pound started the Canaan Fir Tree Co. to commercially develop this unique tree Brown had discovered. The harvest of the seeds is not an easy job. It requires climbing (or riding up in a bucket truck) to the top of 50-foot tall fir trees and hand picking the seeds.
“It is kind of like picking apples that are really gooey and sticky,” Schmidt said.
The seeds are contract grown by Weyerhaeuser Co. based in Washington and sold as tree plugs through the Licking County-based Canaan Fir Co. The resulting business was more than had been originally hoped for.
“It probably saved the Christmas tree industry in Ohio. The Canaan fir fit right in with Ohio’s choose and cut industry,” Schmidt said. “The Canaan fir probably accounts for around 50% of the Christmas trees now being harvested in Ohio. We’ve either gathered seed for or grown 5 million Canaan fir trees.”
On his own Timbuk Farms, Schmidt saw the appeal the Canaan Fir had with customers.
“We had tons of people asking for Frasier fir and we told them that we had its cousin and they accepted it,” he said. “Then they started asking for it.”
Canaan firs are mostly grown in Ohio and surrounding states, though there are a few planted in Europe and in the Western U.S.
“They are concentrated in and around Ohio where people can’t grow Frasier fir,” Schmidt said. “Jim Brown has created a tremendous value for the Christmas tree industry. He spent less than $100,000 getting this research going at OARDC and it has conservatively produced in excess of $100 million in farm gate products for Christmas tree farms. That is a story more people need to hear.”
More people will get to hear the story at the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) Convention at the Sawmill Creek Resort on the shores of Lake Erie in Huron County August 10-13. In the first ever NCTA Convention held in Ohio, Brown and fellow Extension specialist Randy Heiligmann will be telling the story of Ohio’s role in the Canaan Fir.
Ohio and the Canaan Fir
By Matt Reese