Tree 50(–70) m, 2–2.5 m dbh. Crown pyrmidal, becoming columnar and flat-topped with age. Bark of young trees smooth for many years, dark grey, becomming fissured and flaking with age. First order branches thick, short and spreading. Branchlets firm, shining yellowish- or whitish-grey to pale brown, grooved, with fine pubescence at first, soon glabrous. Vegetative buds ovoid-conical, large, 10 × 6 mm, sometimes larger on leading shoots, slightly resinous, pale chestnut brown. Leaves pectinately arranged on vegetative shoots, those of the lowest rank perpendicular to the shoot, those of the upper ranks somewhat forward, 1.5–4.8 cm × 2–3 mm, flattened, flexible, base twisted, apex emarginate or obtuse, or weakly bifid on shaded shoots, grooved and shining green above, stomata confined to the pale green undersides in two dull whitish-green bands. Pollen cones crowded, to 1 cm long. Seed cones short-pedunculate, ovoid-oblong or cylindrical, apex truncate or occasionally rounded, 7–10(–11) × 3–4 cm, green when immature, maturing through yellowish-green to yellowish- or cinnamon-brown; seed scales at mid-point of cone reniform, 1.5 × 2.5 cm; bracts entirely included. (Farjon 2017; Fu, Li & Mill 1999).
Distribution China SE Gansu, Henan, W Hubei, S Shaanxi, W Sichuan
Habitat Temperate forests, 2300–3000 m asl. Commonly on steep rocky slopes and in river gorges, often nearly to the riversides, with a diverse range of broad-leaf associates including Quercus aliena and Betula albosinensis. At higher elevations it occurs with then gives way to forms of A. fargesii.
USDA Hardiness Zone 6
RHS Hardiness Rating H5
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
Taxonomic note Abies chensiensis belongs to a group of closely related species distributed in western China. Its near allies are treated here as A. ernestii, A. salouenensis, and A. recurvata. See ‘Abies chensiensis and its relatives’ for further discussion as to their relationships.
It is curious that a fir with as broad a distribution as Abies chensiensis should have remained so rare a subject in collections. The French Missionary Armand David collected it in December 1872 in the Qinling Mountains, in the southern part of today’s Shaanxi province, from where van Tieghem named the new species some twenty years later (Farjon 2017). It is unlikely that David’s collections included seed – his type herbarium specimen lodged in Peking is ‘a weak sterile specimen…probably an epicormic shoot’ (Rushforth 1984) – and even if the size of the trees had not been an insurmountable obstacle, the lateness of the collection date suggests few cones would have remained.
Bean (1976) states that Wilson found ‘a finer form’ of this fir in 1907, in the Tapao Shan in west Sichuan; these are now referable to A. ernestii. Wilson’s gatherings of the same year, from the Fang Xian in north west Hubei (W 647) are genuine A. chensiensis and included cones (Rushforth 1984) but quite how widely resulting plants were distributed is uncertain; grafts from original trees persist at the Arnold Arboretum (Arnold Arboretum 2020). Most of the UK specimens mentioned by Mitchell, including the ‘giant foliage form’ and any trees of F 30668, all belong to A. salouenensis (Mitchell 1972; Grimshaw & Bayton 2009). Based on Mitchell’s description a tree that grew in the garden at Headfort, Ireland (planted 1933, 18 m in 1980 but since lost (Tree Register 2020)) was probably genuine, but in the wake of so much confusion, the authenticity of Bean’s ‘authentic specimen’ at Stanage Park, Powys, Wales, 12.8 m in 1959, can no longer be taken as read (Bean 1976).
The only genuine trees seen in the preparation of this account are two at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and several at the Yorkshire Arboretum, UK, growing in dappled shade beneath a mature canopy of Larix. In Yorkshire they bear a greater resemblance to A. firma of Japan than to A. salouenensis, differing from the latter in their smaller leaves, and with none of the rigidity and ‘spikiness’ of the former, being altogether more flexible and somewhat rubbery in texture when compared to A. firma. The largest, planted in 1984 and traceable to the Shennongjia Forestry District in north west Hubei (accession 198433871) was 9 m × 19 cm dbh in 2009 (Tree Register 2020) and 14.5 m × 30 cm dbh in 2021 (J. Grimshaw pers. comm. 2021). Three others (19839018, 20022172, and 20022173) are of unknown origin, traceable only to the US National Arboretum, but were originally sent as A. homolepis. Another tree at the Yorkshire Arboretum, listed as this species by the Tree Register (198032474) better fits A. salouenensis.
A young tree at the Arnold Arboretum, plant ID 2–98, is traceable to Ningshan County, Shaanxi, and on that basis is probably genuine. It was sourced from the Morris Arboretum in Pennsylvania, where no examples of this species are recorded in January 2020 (morrisarboretum.org).