Abies balsamea var. phanerolepis (West Virginia Canaan Fir) - Qt Super Plugs


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Used for years by christmas tree growers, this tree deserves far more use than it gets.  Found at high elevations in the Central Appalachians of West Virginia, this strain, Canaan (kuh-NAIN) Fir, comes from seed sources in the Canaan Valley.  This high-elevation valley in West Virginia is a natural "frost pocket", and Canaan Fir has adapted to this by budding out later in the spring, usually mid-May in Indiana.  Canaan fir is much more resistant to late frost damage than regular Balsam fir.

Canaan Fir is a relative newcomer in the landscape.  Possibly an intermediate hybrid between Balsam and Fraser firs, there seems to be characteristics of both trees in Canaan Fir.  Some sources list Canaan Fir as Abies intermedia, signifying the intermediate characteristics between Balsam and Fraser Firs.  Most authorities now regard Canaan Fir as simply a variety of Balsam Fir - the variety, called "Bracted Balsam Fir", Abies balsamea var. phanerolepis ranges from Nova Scotia to West Virginia.  "Canaan Fir" is simply an ecotype of this fir named after the Canaan Valley in West Virginia).

There is definite overlap in the genetics of the Eastern North American Firs, which are Balsam, Fraser and Canaan.  Balsam fir grows across much of Canada up to the tree line, ranging south into Iowa and West Virginia.  Fraser fir is only found from Virginia to Georgia, and is especially abundant at high elevations in the Tennessee and North Carolina mountains, and Canaan Fir is found in isolated pockets in West Virginia.  It is thought that there used to be a continuous spruce-fir forest from Canada to Georgia during the ice age, and that the different species of fir have developed as a result of isolation and microclimates as the earth has warmed back up.

Canaan fir is known for its adaptability; there seems to be more heat resistance and vigor than in either Balsam or Fraser fir.  It also grows naturally on boggy soils, and will grow on heavier soils in the landscape than Fraser Fir.  As usual, though, growth is best on moist, well-drained soils.  Canaan fir has needles that form a "brush" around the twigs, unlike the 2-row needles of Balsam Fir, giving the trees a much fuller appearance.  The needles are intermediate in length between Balsam and Fraser fir, but the branches are more stiff and resilient, like Fraser Fir.  The color is a deep steely green, somewhat similar to Fraser Fir, and the needles are white underneath giving the trees a silvery appearance when viewed from below.


Canaan fir is a useful tree; It is used heavily in the Christmas Tree Industry, and can be used much in the same way as Balsam fir for stuffing pillows, extracting resin, etc.  This tree has also become popular as a windbreak and landscape tree here in the Midwest, tolerating the more clay-based soils and the summer warmth.

As it comes from a climate that is cool and wet, it is not prone to the needle-cast diseases that make Concolor fir (Abies concolor) unsuited for mass plantings around here.  In areas where the soil is too heavy to grow Fraser Fir (Such as Indiana!) Canaan Fir is an excellent substitute.

Growing Information

As mentioned previously, Canaan Fir is a relatively easy-to-grow tree.  We have successfully established quart SuperPlug liners here at the nursery, and they grow extremely well.  They have been unfazed by heat, drought, and cold!  Canaan fir looks great when planted in clumps or groves, as close spacing keeps the plants straight and narrow.  Space about 8 to 10 feet apart for mass plantings.  

Canaan Fir also is a great specimen tree - the steely, dark-green needles keep their color all winter, and tend to stay on the tree for years, creating a dense screen.  The balsam smell is great - Canaan fir is worth planting fo

Common Name: Canaan Fir
Botanical Name: Abies balsamea var. phanerolepis