Only at the upper reaches of the Appalachian Mountains are the fragrant and verdant forests of red spruce and Fraser fir found. In an earlier time, these trees were important locally for pioneer use, but the inaccessibility of these sites, the problem of transport to the large centralized mills of today, and the importance of maintaining these stands for their aesthetic quality now essentially excludes them from the logger's saw.
Red spruce enters the forest at altitudes as low as 4500 feet. From that elevation to about 5000 feet, it is found mixed with eastern hemlock and a variety of broadleaf trees. Above that, Fraser fir joins with the spruce to almost exclude the hardwoods and to form the dark, but not foreboding, spruce. Above 6200 feet in the Great Smoky Mountains, the fir often occurs in pure stands. In the moist gaps in the mountains where soil is deep, other shade-tolerant species such as yellow birch and American beech may replace these conifers. Mountain ash is another important deciduous tree in this otherwise coniferous forest.
Toward the north, as in the mountains of Virginia, forests of spruce and fir occur at elevations as low as 3200 feet. There, the fir is considered a southern race of balsam fir, a species distinguished from Fraser fir only by its cone, for balsam fir, the bracts (undeveloped leaf-like organs attached to cone scales) are shorter than the cone scales. The opposite is true for Fraser fir.6
Neither of these conifers grows to large size, though the wood of red spruce remains a favorite for string instruments. Those trees having a greater breast-height diameter (dbh) than 10 inches are likely to be red spruce, such stems possibly 300 years old. The smaller-size fir trees, in contrast, seldom exceed 150 years in age. One likely finds the fir trees in rocky, non-arable lands where organic soils tend toward the ash-white podzolization brought about by the leaching of iron and aluminum from the surface horizon.
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