Trees 30–35 m × 1–1.2 m dbh. Crown conical or oval, flat-topped in old trees. Bark of young trees smooth, grey or greyish-brown, developing rows of corky lenticels, becoming fissured and dark grey-brown with age. First order branches ascending at first, later horizontal, the lowest finally downswept; second order branches horizontal, densely borne. Branchlets slender, firm, buff grey-brown at first, turning grey, ridged and grooved with short pubesence confined to grooves. Vegetative buds ovoid or conical, 5 × 4 mm, resinous, purplish or reddish-brown. Leaves strongly forwards at the base of each annual shoot, otherwise outspreading, pectinate beneath the shoot, a portion above the shoot strongly swept forward, (1–)1.5–2.5(–3) cm × 1.5–2 mm, linear, base strongly twisted, apex obtuse or emarginate, matt grey-green above, stomata in two greenish-white bands below, occasionally some scattered above. Pollen cones axillary, crowded, greenish-yellow with purple microsporophylls. Seed cones cylindrical or cylindrical-ovoid, 4.5–7.5(–9.5) × 2–3.5 cm, reddish-purple or occasionally greenish when immature, ripening through purplish- or bluish-grey to dull bluish-brown; seed scales reniform, 1–1.2 × 1.5–1.8 cm at midcone; bract cusps usually slightly exserted, occasionally included. (Farjon 2017; Debreczy & Rácz 2011; Fu et al. 1999).
Distribution China Hebei (Xiaowutai Shan), Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning, Shaanxi North Korea South Korea Russia Russian Far East, from the Zeya River catchment south east to the Sikhote-Alin Mountains.
Habitat A medium elevation species of hills and well drained mountain slopes, occurring in mixed-coniferous forest at (300–)500–700 m asl in the interior and northern parts of its range; at 700–2000 m asl in areas with a maritime influence e.g. the Korean Peninsula. Common associates include Pinus koraiensis, Pinus pumila, Picea jezoensis, Betula spp. and Sorbus amurensis in the eastern parts of its range; in the interior it associates with Abies sibirica(?), Larix gmelinii, Picea obovata, and Pinus sibirica. On the Korean Peninsula it may also associate locally with Picea koraiensis and Thuja koraiensis. The climate is characterised everywhere by short, cool summers and long cold winters with much snow.
USDA Hardiness Zone 5
RHS Hardiness Rating H7
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
Taxonomic note The name Abies sibiriconephrolepis (and later permutations of the same) was coined to cover material from China’s Heilongjiang Province apparently intermediate between A. nephrolepis and the closely related A. sibirica. Liu (1971) accepted it in his monograph, but as Farjon (2017) points out, the Flora of China (Fu et al. 1999) does not record A. sibirica from that region. Debreczy & Rácz (2011) make no mention of hybrid forms; it seems prudent to follow Farjon in synonymising the hybrid name.
Abies nephrolepis, from north east Asia, is closely allied to two other species indigenous to that region, A. sibirica and A. sachalinensis. A brief overview of this group is given under A. sibirica. Like the former, it can be very difficult to grow well in much of our area due to its susceptibility to frost damage late in spring, and like the latter its native range includes some areas with just enough of a maritime influence to improve the odds of success. Western literature tells us it was introduced to cultivation by Wilson in 1908, but there is no discussion, nor even speculation, that it may have been utilised for ornament within its native range, or introduced to western Russia prior to its arrival in western Europe and the USA.
Wilson gathered A. nephrolepis in Korea in 1908, under W 9302. Trees traceable to this gathering persist at Dawyck Botanic Garden in Scotland (a young graft from an original tree; pers. obs.) and at the Arnold Arboretum (Arnold Arboretum 2021). The Arnold tree may be the same reported by Warren & Johnson (1988) ‘a beautiful tree of 20 m’ at that time. Throughout our area it has always been more or less confined to specialist collections; it has never been as popular as A. sibirica in northern Scandinavia and western Russia, for example. It is rarely targeted by modern collecting teams, but has been introduced on occasion, including from Korea in 1976 by a team from Gothenburg Botanic Garden, Sweden, and by the American collecting team of Bachtell, Bristol and Meyer, who introduced material from China’s Jilin province in 1993 (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 2021). Notable, old trees of unknown origin include a spectacular specimen at Hergest Croft, Herefordshire, UK, 28 m × 0.95 m dbh in 2013 (Tree Register 2021) and one at Stourhead, Wiltshire, 23.5 m × 1.14 m dbh in 1977 (Bean 1976), long since gone.
A. nephrolepis can be distinguished from A. sachalinensis, A. gracilis, and A. sibirica by its needles, broader than in any of those three, and by its shoots, ridged and grooved rather than smooth. It has been likened to A. veitchii, which it does resemble in several respects, but it can quickly be distinguished by its dull stomatal bands on the undersides of the leaves (cf. bright white) and in many parts of our area by its much reduced vigour. Cultivated trees of A. nephrolepis have a peculiar ‘tell’: the base of each annual shoot has, for a short length, a number of short leaves swept strongly forwards; soon the leaves are longer, and more wide spreading from the shoot and remain so to the end of the annual shoot (pers. obs).