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Tree to 30 m, 1 m dbh. Bark greyish to reddish brown, delicately fissured, peeling in strips. Crown compact, densely columnar. Branchlets decussate or alternate, stout, terete, slightly drooping. Juvenile leaves needle-like; mature leaves scale-like, dull green, decussate, appressed, densely crowded; the lateral and facial pairs similar, 0.1–0.2 cm long, acute; leaf resin gland abaxial and active, rather long; foliage scented when crushed. Male strobili solitary and terminal, borne on short, lateral branches, 0.2–0.4 cm long, subglobose, with 12–16 peltate microsporophylls. Female cones axillary, usually solitary, on short, lateral branchlets, globose to subglobose and valvate; cones reddish brown to brown, 1.2–2 cm diameter. Seed scales in four to seven decussate pairs with several seeds per scale; umbo small but prominent. Seeds tan coloured, ovate to triangular, not glaucous; seed wing tiny, < 0.1 cm wide, thick, opaque (see Silba 1981b). Fu et al. 1999e, Farjon 2005c. Distribution CHINA: southern Gansu, northwest Sichuan. Habitat Mountain slopes and valleys between 800 and 2900 m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 6. Conservation status Vulnerable. Illustration Fu et al. 1999e.
The earliest recorded introduction of Cupressus chengiana to western horticulture seems to have been that made by John Silba in 1981, from Kangting, Sichuan. A tree from this collection is growing at Wakehurst Place. Also at Wakehurst Place are trees derived from a collection made by Jill Cowley (CLDX 1031) near the Camellia Temple, Yulong Shan, Yunnan – outside the species’ natural range and probably planted as an ornamental near the temple (A. Farjon, comment in Kew database). It is difficult to get excited about C. chengiana, it being ‘yet another’ columnar cypress with stiffly ascending branches, although it does have brighter mid-green foliage than most Cupressus. In cultivation it seems to grow steadily in a range of conditions. At the JC Raulston Arboretum it has achieved 5 m since being planted in 1995 (as var. kansouensis), forming a broad column, although here it has now unfortunately met a pine branch and has had its top rubbed out. It is potentially a large tree.
Var. jiangensis differs from the type variety in the shape of its cones (oblong-ovoid, vs. globose in var. chengiana) and in the number of seed scales (10–14, vs. 8–10). The leaves are bright green. Silba 1998, Fu et al. 1999e, Farjon 2005c. Distribution CHINA: northern Sichuan (Jiange Xian). Habitat Similar to that of var. chengiana, at about 800 m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 6. Illustration NT295. Conservation status Critically Endangered.
Despite its rarity this variant is quite widely grown. Kew distributed seedlings from Silba’s 1990 collection from the type tree to several gardens in southern England, and there have been later collections by Wang and others. The Kew database assessment is that it is tender, and plants there are maintained in the Temperate House. The rather low (840 m) collection site in the Jiange Xian suggests that this precaution may be wise, although trees from the same area are doing well at Howick, being 3 m tall and fruiting. There is a leaning specimen at the JC Raulston Arboretum, planted in 1998, which has produced vertical shoots from along the stem, but is clearly thriving despite its poor shape.