“libidinous- from ‘libido’, being sensual and lustful or with strong connection to libido”
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.
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.
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!
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
- 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.
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.
OR & WA (E of Cascade crest), MT BritColumbia
higher elevation- near timberline, 30-40 needles with square cross-section
American larch, tamarack
Newfoundland, MN, WV, MT, WI and all over Canada.
smallest cones of larch,15-30 needles
L. decidua var. polonica
Alps & Caucasian mountains
egg-shaped cones with straight or incurved scale tips, not inflexed.
L. x marschlinsii
hybrid of European & L. kaempferi (Japan)
reflexed cone scales like Japanese larch, needles more like European
W Siberia & NE Russia
bigger, with down-swooping branches & squat cones
Our most common larch in the PNW is of course the western larch (Larix occidentalis)
Our luscious lime-green lovelies live through tough times.
Larches can live for hundreds of years, not abnormal for a conifer, and are fast growing yet are often experiencing the most severe winter conditions a tree can. Gives you the urge to hug one right?
Let's talk Nerdy, the way larches like it:
The deciduous lifestyle for a conifer likely stems (ha) from their evolution in the ancient and dense forests of the arctic, where winter days are very short and unlikely to allow for any photosynthesis, which other evergreen conifers can tap into during warmer spells in milder habitats. Thus larch leaves are cheaper (thinner) to produce as they will be shed annually to save water and stress during their harsh winter when they likely can't even use them anyway.
There are five other deciduous conifer types in the world, with the aptly named bald cypress being the other most likely one you may encounter in the US. See table below for others.
Bald cypress however, would seem different from larch, growing in warm wet southern swamps, but it likely evolved near the arctic millions of years ago and made it's way south and also has a more reddish copper tone as it's leaves senesce (die).
"But how can I tell a larch in winter from just a dead pine or fir?!?" - you ask
-Other conifer leaves turn more reddish copper instead of yellow.
-Once fully denuded, you'll want to look for cones. Larches can keep the same cone on it's branch for years.
-But even easier- look at the branches. The larch has stubby little woody nubs where the leaves emerge each year, and the cones. (See the pictures at the top of post again.)
Larch is a tree of the edge. It doesn’t tolerate any competition for light- being shaded by other plants- so it tends to survive best where other trees can’t quite handle, creating a short gradient into other tree species’ habitat.
Larch trees can seem to spring up from straight rock in very inhospitable exposed environments, but they form very deep roots, helping them hold up to harsh alpine winds. They can grow fairly quickly compared to other trees as well, lending a slight advantage to gaining their needed light when areas are being newly colonized after stand-killing events like wind-falls or intense fires. In fact, larch is the most fire-resistant tree in the Northwest, and without regular mild-moderate fires, some larch stands would be replaced with Douglas fir and grand fir. They even resist most insect or pathogen threats and are very water efficient. Tough trees!
Larch can be very valuable as an early pioneer species after disturbance, reestablishing the forested habitat quickly as fast-growers and eventually getting out-competed. As long as they still have pockets where they can remain and thrive, this regeneration ability of the larch species could be very useful. And who wouldn’t want to see a new young stand of larch restoring a disturbed area? It could relieve the use-stress of other hiking trails, right? But mostly, larch dominate the fringe where other conifers can’t keep up- more north or higher in elevation than other trees.
Larches aren’t just lovely. They have been used by native peoples for arrows, dogsleds runners, boat structures, as well as other crafts and medicines from the bark and are also popular today for furniture. Wildlife also have several uses for larches from habitat to forage.
Humans value the aesthetic habitat of larches as well, bringing them closer to our own homes. A noteworthy group of larches (and bald cypress, above right) have been planted around the popular urban lake-side park of Green Lake in Seattle, WA (examples above) for an excellent nearly side-by-side comparison of these trees that would not normally be growing in that area nor together. Larches make an attractive urban tree, so if you’re lucky, you’ll find some more south than their normal range thanks to their aesthetics and hardiness.
Normally you’d have to hike quite a trek into alpine wildness for the small pockets of accessible larch populations, and likely bump elbows with many other hikers to do so if it’s in fall. Like I said, they are very magnetic to us, especially with planty-peeps like me. But how many able-bodied at-all-outdoorsy folks can resist the mix of stark landscapes and color-contrasts and unique life-forms?
Who has now started wondering about any broadleaf trees that are evergreen (but not narrow-leaf conifers)??
Think about having your own close encounters if you haven't already, or again through a new lens of fun larch facts and look into some lesser-traveled trails. Sometimes they're actually prettier. You could also try a hardy snow-shoe among some naked larch trees this winter, for extra spice.
“Larches: Deciduous Conifers in an Evergreen World” by Stith Gower and James Richards. 1990. BioScience. Vol. 40 No. 11