Species: Canaan Fir - Abies balsamea var phanerolepis

By Ricky Bates
Department of Horticulture, Penn State

Canaan fir, also called West Virginia balsam fir, is a little known tree that is native to isolated pockets in the mountains of West Virginia and Virginia. Some have suggested that, during the last glacial period, a continuous fir population extended from North Carolina north along the Appalachian mountain range into Canada. As the climate changed, fir in the Appalachian mountains were replaced by other species at lower elevations, isolating balsam fir to the north, Fraser fir at higher elevations in Virginia and North Carolina, and Canaan fir at higher elevations in parts of Virginia and West Virginia. The tree takes its common name from the Canaan Valley northeast of Elkins, West Virginia.

As you might expect, Canaan fir has many similarities to both Fraser and balsam fir in growth and appearance. Unfortunately, this similarity has led to a great deal of taxonomic confusion. It has been suggested that only one species of balsam fir with three varieties be recognized in the Eastern United States: Abies balsamea var. balsamea (balsam fir), Abies balsamea var. phanerolepis (Canaan fir), and Abies balsamea var. fraseri (Fraser fir). In the past, some have also promoted the classification of Canaan fir as Abies intermedia, representing a cross between Fraser and balsam fir. Neither of these systems found widespread approval and presently Canaan fir is considered a special ecotype, or variety of balsam fir, whereas Fraser fir (A. fraseri) is considered a separate species.

Canaan fir is an attractive medium-sized tree generally reaching 40-55 feet in height and 20-25 feet in width. It exhibits a relatively dense, pyramidal crown with a slender spire-like tip that often imparts a formal appearance. Foliage color is lustrous dark green to bluish green with silvery stomatic bands on the underside of the needles. Needles generally are two-ranked, ¾ -1 ½ inch long and are spreading and uncrowded on the branch. On some trees, the needles tend to be shorter and curved upwards so as to cover the upper sides of the twigs. Significant variation can occur in both tree habit and needle type.

An important asset of Canaan fir is its ability to grow in areas not well suited to other native firs. It will tolerate wetter soils than Fraser fir and is more resistant to spring frost injury than either Fraser or balsam fir because of its tendency to break bud late. While Canaan fir will tolerate soils with less than perfect drainage, it performs best in deep, well-drained loam with ample moisture. Some sources indicate that Canaan fir grows well in wet, poorly drained soils. In my experience, the tree languishes under such conditions. Canaan fir thrives in cooler climates and can be successfully planted balled-and-burlapped or from a container in spring or fall. Propagation is almost exclusively by seed derived from seed orchards or native stands of trees in West Virginia. The primary pests of Canaan fir include balsam twig aphid, spider mites, balsam wooly adelgid, and deer.

In recent years, considerable interest has developed in using Canaan fir as a Christmas tree species. Unfortunately, it's use as a landscape ornamental has gone largely unnoticed. This handsome conifer deserves wider use in the landscape but may be difficult to find at your favorite garden center. If you need a landscape-sized specimen, you might first check with your local Christmas tree farm.

Name: Abies balsamea var phanerolepis

Common name: Canaan fir

Hardiness: Zone 4

Mature height: 40 feet to 55 feet

Mature spread: 20 feet to 25 feet

Classification: Evergreen tree

Landscape use: Screening, group planting, formal appearance makes it a suitable accent plant

Ornamental characteristics: Uniform, short ascending branches form a tightly pyramidal to conical formal habit; ¾ to 1 ½ -inch long, flat needles are lustrous dark green above with white stomatic bands below; dark violet cones when young, turn gray-brown at maturity

Ricky M. Bates
Assistant Professor of Ornamental Horticulture
Department of Horticulture
Penn State University
University Park, PA 16802
(814) 863-2198