Trees 15–25(–30) m × 0.5–1 m dbh. Base of trunks of mature trees conspicuously fluted. Crown narrowly pyramidal. Bark of young trees smooth, shining olive-green with prominent resin blisters, becoming pale greenish-grey; in older trees smooth in outline, grey. First order branches slender, short, spreading horizontally and then downcurved with age; second order branches assurgent. Branchlets slender, firm, smooth, greenish to pale brown and densely yellowish-brown pubescent at first, later pale brown to yellowish-grey, developing grooves, becoming glabrous. Vegetative buds ovoid-globular, 3 × 3 mm, resinous. Leaves more or less pectinate beneath shoots, directed forwards beside and above shoots, more or less obscuring the shoot, 1.5–3(–3.8) cm × 1.5–2.2 mm, parallel sided, apex somewhat truncate, emarginate, dark- (or pruinose- or bluish-) green above and grooved, stomata in two broad, striking chalk-white bands beneath, green margins and midrib beneath often somewhat obscured by stomata. Pollen cones axillary, pendant, 1–1.5 cm long, yellow with red microsporophylls. Seed cones narrow-cylindrical to ellipsoid, often irregular, apex obtuse or papilliform, 4–8 × 2–3 cm, dark blue or bluish-purple when immature (occasionally green or greenish-purple), maturing to very dark purple-brown or blackish-brown; seed scales narrowly reniform, 0.8–1 × 1.4–1.6 cm at midcone; bracts slightly exserted at maturity, sometimes only the cusp showing, straight or recurved, occasionally adpressed. (Farjon 2017; Debreczy & Rácz 2011).
Distribution Japan Central to northern Honshu.
Habitat An often dominant component of cool-temperate mixed-coniferous forest at elevations between (1000–)1400–2800 m asl, the climate is characterised by cool summers and cold winters, with year-round precipitation. Common associates include Abies mariesii, Picea jezoensis subsp. hondoensis, Larix kaempferi, Thuja standishii, Pinus parviflora, Betula ermanii and Sorbus commixta. At very high elevations Pinus pumila, Tsuga diversifolia and Betula corylifolia become the most common associates.
RHS Hardiness Rating H7
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
Abies veitchii is notable for combining three important traits rarely brought together in the firs: the first is extraordinary cold hardiness; the second is an imperviousness to damage from late spring frosts; the third, its good looks. Grown well, it makes an elegant, narrow spire, often branched to the ground so that its handsome foliage can be fully appreciated.
Species like A. nephrolepis and A. sachalinensis are equally cold hardy, and when grown well these are very beautiful also, but they lack the same immunity, being earlier to commence growth in the spring and therefore often set back by a late frost. A. balsamea, A. lasiocarpa, and A. sibirica are even hardier, and all enjoy youthful good looks, but more often than not they age badly and quickly. A. veitchii’s compatriots A. homolepis and A. mariesii each make handsome and remarkably hardy trees, but perhaps not quite as adaptable. If you wish to plant an unusual fir on a remote, freezing, wind-buffeted hillside, you should choose A. veitchii.
Like nearly all firs, however, it does have its limitations. It requires plentiful, ideally year-round precipitation, and a cool climate; unfortunately this does restrict its usefulness. Even in the oceanic climate of the UK the summers of the south east of England take their toll, and the best specimens grow in cooler collections to the north and west, and especially in Scotland. In these regions its problems are of a different nature – it can almost grow too well. Like all Abies young plantings will usually ‘sit’ for a year or two before doing anything, but once into their stride they can put on extraordinary annual growth. A young tree from the recent gathering of BCJMM 272 was planted at Murthly Castle, Perthshire, in 2010. By spring 2020 this tree was 5.2 m × 8 cm dbh, having put on 1 m of height during 2019 (pers. obs. 2019–2020).
Bean also referred to a specimen here: ‘the tree at Murthly Castle, mentioned in previous editions (31 ft in 1906), had attained twice that height by 1931 but is now dead, as are many others planted at the end of the last century’ (Bean 1976). Such extraordinary growth rates clearly take their toll, for Mitchell observed that this is ‘a very short-lived species’ (Mitchell 1972). The tallest on record in 2020 is a 32 m tree (measured 2017) growing in the shelter of other large conifers beside an internal road near the Golden Gates at Benmore Botanic Garden, Argyll. All others over 25 m are in Scotland, or else in sheltered, cool collections in Powys, Wales and in Wicklow, Ireland. The only extant exception is a remarkable 28 m (in 2016) tree at Stourhead, Wiltshire. A tree of 27 m (in 2009) at Newby Hall in North Yorkshire, England, had gone by 2017. The largest in the southeast were, in 2010, trees of 20 m at Windsor and Grayswood Hill (Tree Register 2020).
In a continental climate it is generally slower, but not necessarily any longer lived. The species will thrive in such regions providing the summers are not excessively hot and dry. There are multiple specimens at Gothenburg Botanic Garden, Sweden, for example (pers. obs. 2019). A 28 m tree grows at the Boswallen Oranje Nassau Oord in the Netherlands (monumentaltrees.com). It was found to thrive at the Arnold Arboretum after first being tried there in 1895, sourced from the Veitch Nurseries (Warren & Johnson 1988), and several trees are extant there in 2020, including a scion of Wilson 7525, propagated in 1959 and 16 m tall in 2016. Others, gathered by Nicholson and Hay on the 1986 Japan expedition, were between 10 m and 11.5 m tall in 2016 (Arnold Arboretum 2020). These figures indicate a much slower rate of growth in Massachusetts than would be expected under optimal conditions in an oceanic climate.
The tree of Wilson 7525 was introduced as var. olivacea, at one time distinguished based on cone characters but no longer considered distinct from the type. Wilson collected A. veitchii in 1914 but it had originally been introduced to cultivation much earlier. Rather typically, exactly when and by whom is uncertain. It is generally agreed that James Gould Veitch ‘discovered’ it on Mt Fuji in 1860, but as various authors have observed he was unable to obtain seed at that time. Most British literature gives credit to Maries in the year 1879, probably using Elwes & Henry as their source, for those authors say ‘It was not known in England or [in Europe] until 1879 when seeds were sent home to Messrs. Veitch by their collector Maries’ (Elwes & Henry 1906–1913). The same authors quote Sargent in saying it was introduced to the United States in 1876, when material was introduced to Parsons Nurseries in Flushing, New York. They go on to report a tree raised there was just shy of 5 m tall by 1889, a remarkable but far from impossible rate of growth. Material was originally circulated in North America under the name Abies japonica.
The ‘spanner in the works’, inevitable in any investigation into plant introductions of the distant past, is this time offered by Jacobson who says ‘introduced to cultivation when Siebold sent seeds to Holland in 1862’ (Jacobson 1996). This shoots a rather satisfying hole through Elwes & Henry’s Anglocentric 1879 theory, but unfortunately Jacobson offers no reference, nor does he reference the equally intriguing snippet ‘In cultivation in the U.S. (as A. japonica) ca. 1865’ (Jacobson 1996). He may have consulted Krüssmann (1985) who gives ‘1861’, but no further detail beyond this. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to corroborate these dates in the future.
A. veitchii can quickly be identified as a mature tree by the fluted base of its trunk and the ‘pockets’ beneath major branches (Mitchell 1972). This helps to separate it from the otherwise similar A. nephrolepis, A. sachalinensis and A. sibirica, which all differ further by not having such markedly white undersides to their narrower needles. A. koreana is superficially similar, but its needles are shorter and more radially arranged around the shoot. Confusion between A. koreana and A. veitchii var. sikokiana is more likely; see below for further discussion.
Several cultivars have been selected, the majority of which are extreme dwarfs propagated from witches’ brooms, and most of these have been raised in the past c. 50 years. The dozen or so lookalikes are beyond the scope of this work; the few that merit discussion are given below.
A small, slow growing selection with yellow leaves. The seed cones are reportedly produced even on young trees, and being typical in colour contrast markedly with the foliage. Raised by Stanley & Sons nursery in Oregon, USA, and first listed in 2009 (Auders & Spicer 2012). The name is probably invalid.
Abies veitchii ‘Minima’ is perhaps the oldest name on record for a dwarf form of this species. It was found at the Backhus Nursery and introduced to the trade by Jeddeloh in 1959. Its description, ‘In ten years 50 × 50 cm’ (Auders & Spicer 2012) could be applied with only minimal amendments to most of the others listed here:
A slow-growing form with particularly unusual, steel-blue leaves, selected in Germany prior to 1968 (Auders & Spicer 2012). Glaucescent forms of A. veitchii occur in the wild and in batches of seed-raised plants, though not usually with this intensity of coloration.
Abies veitchii 'Pendula'
A particularly elegant plant introduced by the Jeddeloh nursery, Germany, in 1970. It is effective when planted above rockwork, for example, and allowed to cascade down. To be grown as a small tree it must be staked and pruned dilligently in youth, an undertaking that demands commitment but rewards in time (Auders & Spicer 2012)
Abies sikokiana Nakai
Distinguished by its shorter needles (0.5–2 cm × 2 mm), smaller seed cones (3–4 cm × 1.5–2 cm) with only the bract cusps occasionally partially exserted, and glabrescent branchlets. (Farjon 2017, Debreczy & Rácz 2011).
RHS Hardiness Rating: H6
Taxonomic note Rushforth (1987a) pointed out the smiliarities between Abies veitchii var. sikokiana and A. koreana and commented that treating both ‘as subspecies of Veitch Fir would be appropriate’ although no such combinations have yet been made. Krüssmann (1985) discussed Shikoku Fir as a forma under A. koreana.
The Shikoku Fir is a relative newcomer to cultivation. It was first recognised as a distinct entity by Nakai who described it in 1928, but being isolated as it is at the tops of peaks on the eponymous island, it was either missed or eschewed by the early horticultural collectors who would have had no reason to think it was anything special. In gross morphology it can be characterised as sitting, rather inconveniently, midway between Abies veitchii and A. koreana. Technical literature tells us that the needles are more radial than the former, but not so radial as the latter, but they are short like Korean Fir’s. The cones are smaller than in the type, and the bracts are said to be less exserted (Farjon 2017).
Krüssmann (1985) discusses it (as A. koreana f. sikokiana) but suggested at that time that it was not in cultivation. This is incorrect, for in 1975 Hilliers supplied a tree to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh bearing the name ‘A. sikokiana’. This is now growing at Benmore Botanic Garden in Argyll and has since been verified as genuine Shikoku Fir (BG-BASE data; accession 19751276). This tree was 14 m in 2017 and in 2020 remains the reigning UK and Ireland champion tree (Tree Register 2020). Several others at Benmore, grown under 19762168, were obtained from the UK’s Forest Research organisation (FR accession 74–150) who in turn had obtained seed in 1974 from a Forest Research Institute in Japan which had gathered seed from near to Mount Ishizuchi.
The first targeted collection by a western team appears to have been that of Nicholson and Hay, who collected it on their 1986 Japan expedition for the Arnold Arboretum. Warren & Johnson (1988) make no mention of it in their survey of Abies at the Arnold, but a tree from the 1986 gathering still grows there (accession 1078–86) and in 2016 was 8.5 m tall (Arnold Arboretum 2020). Material from the same gathering was shared with numerous North American collections, and perhaps this was the source of the ‘slightly leaning tree of 10 m’ that John Grimshaw so admired at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum during his research for New Trees (Grimshaw & Bayton 2009).
It seems that collecting teams rarely go to the bother of acquiring Shikoku Fir, perhaps because nearly all the tempting species that grow on Shikoku can easily be gathered without having to go to the tops of the mountains, but in 2013 the excessively-named Edinburgh-Iconic-Kew Japan Expedition (EIKJE) collected it under the numbers 154, 155, and 156.
We cheated, taking the ski lift to 1750 m up Mt Tsurugi and hiking from there the extra 200 m vertical distance to the peak, collecting Shikoku Fir in thick mist on the far side before descending slightly to gather Sciaodpitys (EIKJE 152 and 153) which we could only find by picking out their dark stalagmite silhouettes in a sea of fir and hemlock crowns. The understorey was thick with Clethra barbinervis and the pale trunks of Betula ermanii, and everything everywhere was dripping wet. Our guides and hosts tried to compensate for the freezing temperatures and poor visibility by telling us of all the treasures we couldn’t see, like the enticing herb Kirengeshoma palmata!
The EIKJE collections grew well and have been distributed throughout the UK under the auspices of the International Conifer Conservation Programme. Nevertheless, the observation in New Trees that it is uncommon remains true, and this will likely remain the case. Experience since the 1970s suggests that the Shikoku Fir retains all the qualities, and failings, of Veitch Fir, but it is often much slower. If anything, having been restricted to the sub-alpine zone approaching 2000 m for so long, it would not be surprising if the Shikoku Fir exhibited even less tolerance than Veitch Fir of sub-optimal conditions, especially with regard to heat and dry.