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Ambiguous Libidinous Larches

Updated: Jan 7

libidinous- from ‘libido’, being sensual and lustful or with strong connection to libido”

Larix species:

You can’t really pin them down. And yet that could also be why they are so very irresistible; offering a seductive draw to cold steep and distant mountain ridges. In fact some larch locations have trails so overrun with the seasonal larch-lusters it’s just a train of hiker-butts in front of you, all cabooses all the way. The large crowds can be rough for a trail and the opposite of wilderness solitude many hikers seek.

Larches are a bit of the rebellious type. They are among a small group of conifers, the trees known in introductory botany lessons as ‘evergreens’, that actually don’t keep their leaves (needles) all year and stay green through winters. Lesson #1 in botany is there are exceptions to every ‘rule’. As I say- “plants do what they want”. There's always a rambunctious rebel and these conifers aren't evergreen.

The main species we have in the Pacific Northwest is Larix occidentalis, which ranges from a sliver of the Cascades in WA south into OR, with bigger chunks in eastern OR and a lot in ID, MT and British Columbia. Larches are a deciduous conifer; a sorta-pine-like tree with clusters of thin needles but ones that change to a lush golden yellow in fall. And that sight really spruces up (ha) the alpine landscape in October. The needles are noticeably thin because they don’t need to be tough enough to last through bristling winters, even through multiple years.

Larch needles in frilly clusters

They are in the same family as pines (Pinaceae), hence the fairly long, soft, vibrant green needles in clusters but more dense than pines. They also form needles very early in spring. In summer they form interesting sometimes bristly-looking upright cones that are ‘softer’ than a pine’s, more like the thinner scaled cones of firs. In spring, as they form, the cones of some species are a rosy purple, looking more like a flower. But hey, it is a sex-structure like a flower, just prettier than most blandly brown/green conifer sex-cones. Ok, they turn brown.

cones of pine vs larch, very different though in same family
Larch (top) and fir cones (bottom)

Some casual observers may think the larch is a bit indecisive. It’s a non-evergreen among the evergreen tree group, and a tall tree among the alpine tree zone where they tend to be short from the struggles at the top of the tree-line. Awe, the colorful & flamboyant conifer!

larch- waving their freak-flag high!

I see Larch as a plucky pioneer, a “them” among the binary gendered masses, who defies our arbitrary human categories (arbor-trary). We humans do like putting things in boxes, organizing and sorting, but then we also strive to think outside the box. Pine-like needles and fir-like cones; a conifer that changes color. Can't be tamed.

Lithesome Larch sits squarely next to the box, saying, “Hey, why are all my relatives in that conif-tainer?” Sorry, that one didn't quite work, but I like to think Larch would like puns.

North American larches are also called Tamarack

3 larch trees tucked in with other conifers near a stream

- from their original name by the Algonquians which means “wood used for snowshoes”.

They do tend to be in areas where you’d need snowshoes, at least to see them form new leaves in spring/early summer or to see them swapping leaves for a snowy coating in winter.

The Larix laricina species of Tamarack is among the widest ranging of any conifer in North America, though it sticks to the far north of the US and most of Canada (remember, Canada is very vast). Tamarack/larch found in the United States include three native species and some introduced, plus some hybrids. Elsewhere on the globe, they also stick to the cooler temperate zones of the Northern Hemisphere and with only about a dozen species total. They are globally special.

Here's the ones you may see in the United States:

US Larch spp.

common name

native range

ID tips

Larix occidentalis

western larch

OR & WA (E of Cascade crest), MT BritColumbia

most common, 15-30 needles with triangle cross section

L. lyallii x occidentalis

hybrid of western & subalpine

where ranges of species overlap

intermediate traits to true-breeding spp.

L. lyallii

subalpine larch

OR & WA (E of Cascade crest), MT BritColumbia

higher elevation- near timberline, 30-40 needles with square cross-section

L. laricina