A tree up to 150 ft high in nature, with a trunk 6 or 7 ft in diameter; young shoots very stout, rough, downy in the grooves between the leaf-bases; buds resinous. Leaves aggregated in two opposite sets so as to leave a V-shaped opening along the top, the lower ones on each side spreading horizontally; they arc, individually, 11⁄4 to 2 in. long, 1⁄12 to 1⁄8 in. wide, linear, distinctly notched at the apex; dark green, glossy, and deeply grooved above, and with two broad, vividly blue-white bands of stomata beneath. Cones 5 or 6 in. long, 3 in. in diameter, violet-purple at first, ultimately brown. Bot. Mag., t. 8098 as A. mariesii.
Native of the Himalaya from Afghanistan to Assam; in the western part of its range it overlaps with A. pindrow but occurs at a higher altitude than that species. The eastern populations (from Sikkim eastward) are said to be finer than the western and are sometimes regarded as a distinct species, A. densa Griff., but this name is usually relegated to synonymy under A. spectabilis.
The first successful introduction of this fir was in 1822 but the older extant specimens are of later date. It is a species that thrives best in the milder and moister parts of the British Isles, in positions not subject to late spring frosts. Where suited, it has grown well and many old trees remain. It is very distinct in its large, arched leaves, so vividly white beneath, and in its large, globose, very resinous buds, but it is as a young tree that it is most decorative. The following are some of the older and taller specimens on record: Dropmore, Bucks., pl. 1843, 95 × 43⁄4 ft (1961); Inveraray, Argyll, pl. 1876, 90 × 91⁄4 ft (1955); Castle Leod, Ross, 87 × 12 ft (1966); Albury Park, Surrey, pl. 1891, 80 × 4 ft (1961); Howick, Northumb., pl. 1841, 78 × 10 ft (1958).
var. brevifolia (Henry) Rehd. A. webbiana var. brevifolia Henry – A very distinct variety with grey branchlets, less prominently furrowed than in the type. Leaves much shorter, to 11⁄4 in. long, greyish beneath with two inconspicuous stomatic bands. It was described from a cultivated tree, raised from Himalayan seed in 1879. It is matched by wild specimens collected in the western Himalaya and may be the form assumed by A. spectabilis in that part of its range. The trees showing the characters of this variety are less spring-tender than the type and have reached a greater height in cultivation. Those recorded are: Taymouth Castle, Perths., c. 105 × 91⁄4 ft (1962); Tregrehan, Cornwall, 100 × 61⁄2 ft (1957); Dupplin Castle, Perths., 91 × 71⁄2 ft (1957); Castle Leod, Ross, 85 × 81⁄4 ft (1966).
From the Supplement (Vol. V)
Although Liu includes A. densa among the synonyms of A. spectabilis, recent field studies support the view that it represents a distinct species – A. densa Griff. ex Parker, named by William Griffith in 1847 but not described until 1927. Among its differential characters are: the wide-spreading, heavily branched crown; bark soon becoming scaly (smooth in A. spectabilis); the brown, not greyish or yellowish, branchlets; the longer, somewhat broader leaves with whiter stomatal bands beneath; cones with slightly exserted bract-scales (against concealed in A. spectabilis). It is considered that A. densa takes the place of A. spectabilis from east Nepal eastwards (J. Amaral do Franco in Enumeration of the Flowering Plants of Nepal, Vol. I, p. 25 (1978)). It is interesting that A. densa is geographically a near neighbour of the mainly Chinese A. forrestii and A. delavayi, and approaches them in some of its botanical characters.
Judging from Alan Mitchell's description in Conifers in the British Isles (1972), the cultivated trees planted as A. spectabilis (or rather, under the previously more familiar name of A. webbiana) seem to be A. densa so far as habit, bark and foliage are concerned, although the cones borne are said to have included bracts. The Hooker introduction of c. 1850 would be A. densa, since that came from Sikkim, just inside the western boundary of that species. Trees grown as A. spectabilis var. brevifolia are A. spectabilis in the narrow sense, and probably had a more western provenance. It is not clear at the moment how abruptly A. spectabilis gives way to A. densa.
specimens: As noted above, some of these trees may be A. densa, or possibly intermediate between it and A. spectabilis: Wakehurst Place, Sussex, pl. 1916, 59 × 61⁄4 ft (1979); Highclere, Hants, pl. 1897, 88 × 81⁄2 ft (1978); Stourhead, Wilts., pl. 1924, 58 × 5 ft, almost certainly A. densa (1980); Bicton, Devon, pl. 1918, 87 × 6 ft (1977); Howick, Northumb., pl. 1841, 50 × 81⁄2 ft in 1909, now 87 × 10 ft (1978); Aira Force, Cumb., 88 × 9 ft (1976); Castle Kennedy, Wigtons., pl. 1856, 85 × 103⁄4 ft (1979); Benmore, Argyll, pl. 1937, 82 × 61⁄4 ft (1983); Inveraray, Argyll, 92 × 9 ft (1982); Keir House, Perths., pl. 1850, 70 × 91⁄2 ft (1985); Fasque House, Kincs., 72 × 111⁄4 ft (1980); Castle Leod, Ross, the tree measured in 1966 was blown down in January 1978; Kilmacurragh, Co. Wicklow, Eire, 79 × 113⁄4 ft (1980); Powerscourt, Co. Wicklow, Eire, 105 × 113⁄4 ft and 110 × 83⁄4 ft (1980).
var. brevifolia - specimens: Stanage Park, Powys, 62 × 31⁄4 ft (1978); Taymouth Castle, Perths., 120 × 10 ft (1983); Dupplin Castle, Perths., 98 × 81⁄4 ft (1983); National Botanic Garden, Glasnevin, Eire, 50 × 4 ft (1980).
Plants from seed taken from wild trees identified as A. densa are now in cultivation from Schilling 2574 (East Nepal) and from a collection by Sinclair and Long in Bhutan.