A tree ordinarily 80 to 100 ft high in the wild but sometimes 180 to 200 ft high as seen in the Upper Tebu country in S.W. Kansu, China, by J. F. Rock, who describes the bark as ‘pale whitish brown’. Buds variable in shape, resinous, partly concealed by the leaves. Young shoots reddish brown, ordinarily glabrous, but weak shoots densely downy. Leaves on adult trees 1⁄2 to 1 in. long, bluntish, rounded or obscurely notched at the apex, glossy green above with two strips of stomatiferous lines beneath. The arrangement of the leaves on sterile shoots is not given in the original description but in cultivated specimens they are densely set on the shoot, pointing forward and outward and closely overlapping; on coning branches they curve upward. Cones ovoid-oblong, rounded at the top, 2 to 3 in. long and 11⁄3 in. wide, purplish- or violet-black, not or very slightly resinous, with little more than the subulate, deflexed tips of the bracts showing.
This silver fir which, judging by Rock’s account, must be one of the finest in the world, was first found by Purdom, in 1911, on the banks of the Tao River in Kansu. The species was described from his No. 805, thought by Rehder and Wilson to be the same as a specimen collected earlier by Peère Farges in E. Szechwan, described as A., fargesii var. sutchuenensis by Franchet. It was also introduced by Purdom, and the trees at Dawyck and Hergest Croft are probably from his seed. The main introduction was in 1925, when seed collected by Rock was distributed by the Arnold Arboretum. In A. fargesii, with which it might be confused, the leaves on sterile shoots are longer and more outward pointing and the top of the main part of the bracts is exposed. A good field character is that in that species the leaves when crushed smell of orange, whereas in A. sutchuenensis they are unpleasantly pungent (E. L. Hillier in Journ. R.H.S., Vol. 66, 1941, p. 434). It has also been confused with A. delavayi var. faxoniana, which, however, has downy shoots and larger cones.
The few specimens recorded are: Dawyck, Peebl., pl. 1924, 44 × 31⁄2 ft (1966); Hergest Croft, Heref., pl. 1923, 35 × 3 ft (1961); Wakehurst Place, Sussex, 28 × 11⁄4 ft (1964); Westonbirt, Glos., 28 × 11⁄2 ft (1964). There are smaller examples at Burnside, Angus, and Blairquhan, Ayrs.