Abies balsamea var. phanerolepis (Fern.)
Canaan (pronounced "Ka-naan", with emphasis on the last syllable)
is a relative newcomer to the Christmas tree market. It has many similarities to
both Fraser and balsam firs in growth and appearance. Unfortunately, this
similarity which has led to a great deal of confusion.
In 1909, a variety of balsam fir was described in the literature as having
cone scales extending from the bracts. This morphology was a deviation from
typical balsam fir cones where the scales are not extended. This variety was
then named "phanerolepis" which actually means conspicuous scales. The
scientific name of Abies balsamea var. phanerolepis was
assigned. The common names most often used were "bracted balsam fir"
and "Blue Ridge fir". Canaan fir had not, at that time, been described
Bracted balsam fir is found from Labrador to Ontario, and from the coast of
Maine to the higher mountains of Virginia and West Virginia. The environments in
which most natural stands are found is quite similar to those of balsam fir and
Fraser fir. The optimum habitat appears to be a cool climate, abundant moisture
and deep, well-drained soils. Soils are moderately to strongly acidic.
In the mid 1930's, suggestions were made by several authors that some
specimens of the variety phanerolepis had a sufficient number of traits
of both balsam and Fraser fir that it should not be recognized as a variety but
as a separate species. These specimens were generally found in West Virginia and
Virginia. One author suggested the name be changed to Abies intermedia
to reflect this intermediate nature of the plants' characteristics. The
classification as a separate species has since fallen out of favor, but some
commercial nurseries still market the trees as Abies intermedia.
Where does Canaan fir fit into the scheme? Canaan fir is so-named because
several of the original trees with the intermediate morphology were identified
from a limited area in West Virginia, generally referred to as the Canaan
Valley. Taxonomically, Canaan fir is considered the same as bracted balsam fir
and has the scientific name of Abies balsamea var. phanerolepis.
However, growth traits of the trees from these southern regions are somewhat
different than for other bracted balsam fir. Thus, there occurs a dilemma as to
how Canaan fir should be classified. There are lots of opinions. The simplest
solution is probably to consider Canaan fir as a special ecotype of bracted
balsam fir; this ecotype having unique characteristics as a result of the
environment to which it has been exposed. It is not currently considered a
Because Canaan fir is probably best identified as an ecotype, its range is
somewhat undefined. Bracted balsam fir is found from sea level in the Northeast
to as high as 3,700 feet in Virginia. Original Canaan fir collections for
seedling production were made in a small area in West Virginia at elevations
generally above 3,000 feet, although trees of this ecotype may exist in other
Commercial propagation is by seeds. Information regarding other techniques is
limited but it is reasonable to assume methods appropriate to the eastern fir
species would be applicable.
Because of the similarity of Canaan fir to the other eastern firs, its uses
are similar, although inaccessibility of stands limits the amount of wood which
can be harvested.
Prepared by Dr. Craig R. McKinley, North Carolina State University