Trees to <15 m × <0.8 m dbh. Crown conical in young trees, conical-columnar and irregular in old trees. Bark of young trees smooth, shining brownish-grey, with prominent resin blisters; turning grey and fissuring with age, breaking into irregular, small plates. Branchlets slender, firm, greenish- or grey-brown at first, pale cream- or whitish-grey later, weakly ridged, (very) sparsely pubescent in grooves. Vegetative buds ovoid, small, very resinous, reddish-brown. Leaves radially arranged, densely set, parted beneath the shoot, forwards and often upcurved above, 1.3–2.2 cm long, 1–1.2 mm wide, parallel-sided, glossy dark green and grooved above usually with a few broken stomatal lines; two narrow silvery-white stomatal bands beneath, apex acuminate, rounded, or emarginate, base strongly twisted. Pollen cones crowded, c. 1 cm long, yellowish with red microsporophylls. Seed cones often crowded, sessile or subsessile, ellipsoid-cylindrical, apex obtuse, rarely acute, small, 2.5–5 × 1–2 cm, purplish when immature, dark purplish-brown at maturity; seed scales reniform; bracts included at maturity (Debreczy & Rácz 2011; exserted according to Farjon 2017). (Farjon 2017; Debreczy & Rácz 2011).
Distribution Russia Kamchatka Peninsula (Kronotzky Bay)
Habitat Restricted to a remarkably isolated population of c. 30,000 trees in coastal lowlands.
USDA Hardiness Zone 2
RHS Hardiness Rating H7
Conservation status Data deficient (DD)
In his Handbook of the World’s Conifers Farjon casts quite reasonable aspersions on the validity of this taxon: ‘The occurrence of a small, isolated ‘grove’ of ca. 30,000(?) trees occupying an area of no more than 20 ha in coastal lowland in the SE part of the peninsula of Kamchatka is something of an enigma’ (Farjon 2017). Indeed ‘isolated’ is something of an understatement; this ‘population’ lies at least 1200 km from the nearest silver fir, ‘totally at odds with what is known of the biogeography of its nearest relatives’ (Farjon 2017). Farjon suggests it is nearest, morphologically, to A. sachalinensis, and he treats it as a variety of that species. Debreczy and Rácz (2011), citing an unspecified 2003 paper, point it toward A. nephrolepis but treat it at species rank anyway. It differs from both in minor ways, just as it differs from A. sibirica, to which it has also been compared. Following Debreczy & Rácz it is treated at species rank here, for it seems sensible in light of the geographic aberrance to disassociate it from A. sachalinensis, which is otherwise well defined.
Of all the firs from the very cold regions of northern Asia this is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the rarest in collections. Its best chance would seem to be in a cold, moist climate, with minimal risk of spring frosts, which essentially rules out most of the UK and Ireland. Here it is an abject failure. The two trees at Dawyck discussed in New Trees ‘both under 50 cm, despite having been accessioned in 1992 and 1993’ (Grimshaw & Bayton 2009) remain, over ten years later, comfortably under 1 m (pers. obs. 2020). Any notion of taking advantage of this enforced dwarfism and growing A. gracilis on a rock garden, for example, is rendered pointless given they spend several months each year covered in sad, brown, burnt extension growth. The one at Howick, planted in 1997 and 1.2 m in 2007 (Grimshaw & Bayton 2009) has since died after the intrusions of a deer with a keen curatorial eye.