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Tree to 30 m, trunk erect and slender, 1.3 m dbh. Bark scaly, reddish brown, becoming greyish brown in older trees and developing longitudinal fissures, forming thick, irregular plates. Crown conical then broadly ovoid. Branchlets stout, shiny, yellowish to reddish brown; vegetative buds slightly resinous. Leaves in fascicles of two (to three), persisting for three years, straight, slightly twisted, triangular in cross-section, 8–14 × 0.1–0.15 cm, margins serrulate, apex acute. Fascicle sheaths 0.5–1 cm long, persistent. Cataphylls 0.7 cm long, triangular, dark brown to black. Male strobili cylindrical, 1–1.8 × 0.3–0.45 cm, yellowish brown. Female cones subterminal, solitary or in pairs, pendulous, sessile or short-pedunculate. Cones 4–7 × 4–7 cm, shiny chocolate-brown, ovoid, mature in about 18 months. Scales irregular, spreading wide at maturity; apophysis prominent, rhombic, 0.4–0.7 cm thick; umbo dorsal, with a short, recurved prickle. Seeds light greyish brown; wings 1.5–2 cm long. Fu et al. 1999c, Farjon 2005a. Distribution CHINA: southern Qinghai, western Sichuan, eastern Xizang, northwest Yunnan. Habitat Forested mountain slopes between 2600 and 4200 m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 7. Conservation status Lower Risk. Illustration Fu et al. 1999c; NT597. Taxonomic note Some authors have speculated that P. densata is a stabilised natural hybrid, with P. tabuliformis and P. yunnanensis as parents (Wang & Szmidt 1990, Wang et al. 1990).
Pinus densata has been cultivated for many years, usually as P. tabuliformis var. densata, but has remained obscure. It was collected by Ernest Wilson on numerous occasions during his years in China (Sargent 1916) and it may have been from one of his gatherings that trees first became established in cultivation; certainly it was reported to be thriving in some British gardens at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Conifer Conference in 1931. Wilson described it as resembling P. sylvestris, with mature trees having ‘a rounded or flattened head and pale red bark’, and recorded that it was the common pine of western Sichuan; it is also common in northwestern Yunnan and southeastern Tibet. No doubt because of this frequency, it has been reintroduced regularly since plant collectors entered China again in 1980, and it is now grown quite commonly in botanic gardens throughout our area. Whether it deserves widespread cultivation is another matter as it is not one of the most beautiful of pines, with dull green needles and improbably small cones for a species with rather thick stems. It seems to grow reasonably fast when young, several plants at Kew from the 1993 SICH 732 collection being now in the range of 4.5–5.5 m tall, although at Howick the growth rate in plants from the same collection is slower. Trees produce cones at an early age, both in natural habitats and in cultivation.
Pinus densata var. pygmaea J.R. Xue, from dry mountainsides in Sichuan and Yunnan, is much smaller than the type variety, forming a multistemmed shrub to 2 m tall. The leaves are shorter than in var. densata (7–13 cm long), as are the cones (4–5 cm long), which do not open at maturity. Var. pygmaea is not known to be in cultivation, but sounds interesting.