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Tree to 40 m, trunk columnar, 1–1.5 m dbh. Bark smooth, greyish brown in young trees, becoming scaly in older trees. Crown broad and conical or dome-shaped. Branchlets slender, purplish or brownish red, becoming dark purple then grey with age, conspicuously grooved between the leaves; leaf scars circular or ovate; vegetative buds resinous. Leaves spirally arranged, in two lateral rows at right angles to the shoot, (1.2–)1.5–4(–5.5) × 0.1–0.2 cm, apex obtuse. Male strobili lateral, 2–2.5 cm long, yellowish. Cones erect, subsessile, cylindrical with an obtuse apex, 8–12 × 4–5.5 cm, purple when immature, dark brown when mature. Seed scales reniform, 2–2.5 × 3 cm. Bract scales cuneate, 1.2–1.7 cm long with short triangular cusps, only slightly exserted. Seeds light brown, with broad egg-shaped wings, 1–1.5 cm long. Farjon 1990. Distribution EL SALVADOR; GUATEMALA; HONDURAS; MEXICO: Chiapas, Colima, Guerrero, Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, Oaxaca, Tamaulipas. Habitat Pacific side of the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain chain, between 1800 and 3700 m asl. Climate cool and moist, with most precipitation occurring in winter. USDA Hardiness Zone 9. Conservation status Vulnerable. Illustration Liu 1971, Farjon 1990; NT53. Cross-reference K36. Taxonomic note A number of varieties of A. guatemalensis have been described (var. longibracteata Debreczy & Racz, var. ixtepejiensis Silba, var. rushforthii Silba and var. tamaulipensis Silba) and these names appear in the literature, occasionally at specific rank. However, Farjon (2001) recognises only var. jaliscana.
Abies guatemalensis has the distinction of being the only ‘new tree’ on CITES Appendix I, given maximum possible protection in international trade. The only other hardy trees on Appendix I are Araucaria araucana, Fitzroya cupressoides, Pilgerodendron uviferum and Podocarpus parlatorei. Abies guatemalensis has become threatened by forest clearance, timber harvesting and the use of juveniles as Christmas trees. The latter problem is being addressed by collecting seed and encouraging farmers to grow crops of the tree as a commercial venture (De Macvean 2003, Córdova 2007). It is rare in cultivation, but surprisingly hardy. A specimen at Wakehurst Place is doing well, being 8 m tall when seen in 2005, with a rather un-Abies-like appearance caused by its very dense mass of ascending branches. The foliage is dark green and conspicuously flattened to the side of the shoots. This tree derives from a collection made at San Carlos in the Sierra Madre Oriental, Tamaulipas in 1993, at the surprisingly low altitude of 1070 m. Rushforth (1987a) predicted that high-altitude provenances offered the best chance of successful establishment in horticulture, and this would indeed seem wise for further gatherings. It is established in the Berkeley Botanic Garden, and probably elsewhere in the milder parts of the United States, from collections in Tamaulipas in the early 1990s. Material of unknown origin has also been circulated by Arboretum Waasland, Belgium, and it has been offered in the past in western North America.