Tree to <20 m × <1 m dbh. Crown broad-conical, flat-topped in old trees. Bark of young trees smooth with large lenticels, whitish-grey, soon developing longitudinal fissures and breaking into small irregular plates. First order branches long, horizontally spreading. Branchlets thick, firm, pale whitish-yellow or yellowish-brown, ridged and grooved, glabrous or with a sparse, short pubescence in the grooves. Vegetative buds ovoid or conical, somewhat resinous. Leaves spirally arranged, those of lower ranks pectinate, those above strongly forward or sometimes recurved, parted above and below vegetative shoots by a ‘V’, (1–)1.5–3.5(–4.2) cm × 2.5–3.5 mm, base twisted, apex bifid or emarginate (bifid on shaded shoots), glossy dark green above, with two silvery-white stomatal bands beneath. Pollen cones axillary, 2–2.5 cm long, yellowish with red microsporophylls. Seed cones short-pedunculate, oblong-conical, apex truncate, (6–)7–12 × 3–4.5 cm, greenish or yellowish-green when immature, maturing to yellowish-brown then brown; seed scales flabellate, 1.8–2.5 × 2.5–3 cm at mid-cone; bracts spathulate, exserted and recurved at maturity. (Farjon 2017; Debreczy & Rácz 2011).
Distribution China Zhejiang (Mt. Baishan-zu)
Habitat Secondary angiosperm forest at 1500–1700 m asl. The warm-temperate climate has some degree of maritime influence and experiences humid summers and cool, moist winters.
USDA Hardiness Zone 8
RHS Hardiness Rating H4
Conservation status Critically endangered (CR)
On its discovery in 1963 Abies beshanzuensis immediately became the rarest conifer on the world, with only 7 or 8 extant individuals located at that time (accounts vary, proving that conifer experts can disagree even where a layperson would think it impossible). Three trees were later removed to the safety of Botanic Gardens where they duly died, and storms reduced the population further, for by the late 1980s only 3 mature trees were extant (Yang et al. 2019). At some stage it was vegetatively propagated, but how many genotypes were saved by grafting scions on to A. firma is unclear. In the first decades of the 21st century conservation actions have been accelerated, with seedlings (presumably raised in isolation to ensure genetic purity) reintroduced to habitat (Yang et al. 2019). The extant wild trees survive in secondary angiosperm forest, gradually recovering from previous clearances. The firs are an anomaly in a community dominated by broadleaves including Fagus lucida, Quercus glauca, Schima wallichii (?), and Castanopsis species; the understorey is dominated by evergreens including the endemic bamboo Yushania beshanzuensis (Debreczy & Rácz 2011).
Unfortunately, Baishan Fir’s imperilled existence as a wild plant is not mitigated by a meaningful presence in global ex-situ collections. A very limited supply is circulating in North America under this name, traceable to an introduction made by John Silba, ostensibly of very similar provenance to the material he introduced from Japanese cultivation as A. ziyuanensis. Given the inferred close relationship between these two species (A. ziyuanensis is sometimes treated as a variety of A. beshanzuensis) a close study of as broad a range of this material as possible should be made to determine authenticity, although Keith Rushforth considers it is ‘probably genuine’ (K. Rushforth pers. comm. 2021). This material has occasionally been available from the Buchholz & Buchholz nursery, which is the source of a tree growing at Cornell Botanic Gardens; planted in 2013, it was 2.75 m tall (10 cm dbh) in early 2021 (P. Syphrit pers. comm. 2021). The genuine article is cultivated in its native China, but there is a compelling case for the organised dispersal of all known genotypes to an international selection of reputable institutions to help guarantee its future.