Soaring to heights that exceed 120 feet, the Larch tree is no slouch in the world of deciduous conifers. The stunning cone-bearing plant is not commonly found in the United States; rather, the hardy tree prospers in cold European climates. Still, if you are determined to add the towering tree to your property, there are ways to propagate the Larch without compromising your entire yard.
A Brief Look at Larches
Larch trees (Larix spp.), also known as tamaracks, are needle-bearing conifers with an unusual trait: unlike pines, spruces, firs, and other coniferous relatives, larches are deciduous. They are adapted to cold, northerly and mountainous regions, where they are valued for their soft foliage, uniform growth habit, and brilliant golden foliage in the fall.
Several species of larch are grown for landscaping purposes, but they are all quite similar in appearance and growing requirements -- overall size is the main difference among them. Larch is hardy in USDA zones 2 to 6.
Appearance of the Tree
Given their massive size, Larch trees are hard to miss, even in their native home along the Bavarian Alps. The fast-growing mountainous trees thrive in higher altitudes where their canopies can extend without limitations.
Aside from their size, the Larch tree has a number of other distinguishing traits, including:
- Leaves: Larch leaves take the shape of soft, flat needles which sprout out in tufts. Each cluster features roughly 30 to 40 green needles, which turn golden-yellow in autumn and fall to the ground during winter.
- Bark: The tree's thick bark is light brown, though some varieties feature a pink tinge under the brown. The bark is comprised of thin layers that split easily.
- Flowers: Among the Larch's green needles, you will also see pinkish red female flowers, which eventually turn into cones.
- Fruit: The fruit of the Larch is a red or pale yellow cone that turns brown and scaly as the tree matures.
While the Larch tree is an awe-inspiring specimen to view in the spring and summer, during the winter months, when the tree is stripped of its needles, flowers and fruit, it takes on a gaunt, lifeless look that is not very attractive.
The Many Looks of a Larch Tree
Like most conifers, larches need full sun, but they are one of the few that prefer to grow in wet soil. The soil must also be acidic and rich in organic matter, mimicking the boggy locations where these trees are found in the wild. The Larch tree is at home in very cold temperatures found in extreme northern latitudes. The trees are especially prosperous in:
- Northern portion of the United States
- Parts of Asia
The tree is most content in mountainous regions where it can withstand a variety of weather conditions. The Larch is protected by a thick bark, which is particularly impermeable. The wood of the Larch tree is so hard it can resist most forest fires.
There are more than a dozen different types of Larch trees on the planet; however, most fall into one of the following three families:
- Eastern Larch: Also known as the Tamarack, the Eastern Larch is the only one that is native to the United States. The tree thrives in Ohio where it grows in wet, acidic soil found on the shorelines of Lake Erie. The tree is used mainly for ornamental landscaping though it still needs ample space given its large size.
- European Larch: Regarded as the "King of Larches," the European variety needs moist soil to survive. Found in central and northern Europe, this Larch features a network of stacked branches that need plenty of space to stretch out.
- Japanese Larch: This type of Larch closely resembles the European variety, but includes more drooping twigs and branches and also features bluish needles. Like its cousins, the Japanese Larch cannot tolerate alkaline or dry soil.
Pendula: This is a weeping variety that grows to 25 feet.
Varied Directions: This is a bizarre weeping variety growing 15 feet tall and 20 to 30 feet wide with branches that arch every which way.
Blue Sparkler: This is a dwarf variety with bluish needles that grows to just 12 feet in height.
The Larch tree is especially valued for its extremely hard wood. The tree's timber is tough, waterproof and knot-free. Consequently, it is a top pick to construct:
- Interior paneling
- Roof shingles
Centuries ago Larch flowers were heated and used in herbal medicines. In addition, smaller versions of the trees are used for ornamental purposes, especially in bonsai culture where they are over pruned so their edgy bark and small needles can be appreciated on a smaller scale.
The Larch tree has an international appeal that dates back centuries. For example, in Central and Northeastern Asia, the tree holds special significance to women struggling with fertility issues. Childless women believe that spending the night under a Larch will help them conceive a baby
In Europe, the Larch is cherished as a decorative tree as well as one that is incredibly functional. In fact, the city of Venice, Italy, is built almost exclusively of Larch wood. Meanwhile, in England, the Society of Arts used to present gold medals for superior Larch tree cultivation and essays written about its economic importance.
Planting and Caring for Larches
Plant larches from established nursery-grown trees, which are widely available in the regions where they are suitable for growing. They are useful as single specimens in rock garden environments, Asian-themed landscapes, and woodland gardens. They are also useful as a tall hedgerow.
Planting Your Larch Tree
Dig a hole to the depth of the root ball and two or three times as wide. Gently loosen the roots before placing the tree in the hole. Mix compost into the soil as it goes back into the hole and spread a thick layer of mulch over the planting area. Pine or fir needles or shredded bark makes a suitable mulch.
Caring for the Larch Tree
Larches need little care other than ensuring the soil remains constantly moist. The top of the tree should never be pruned, but the lower limbs can be removed as the tree grows up to let light in below and expose the trunk.
To keep your Larch strong and healthy, select a spot on your property where the tree has ample room to expand. Once you have found an open space, consider the following tips:
- Spread a two-inch layer of mulch, wood chips or leaves around the base of the tree.
- Only prune a Larch in mid-summer to remove injured or diseased limbs. Do not over prune.
- Make sure your tree is planted in moist soil. Check the moisture level of the soil regularly and supplement with water when necessary.
- Do not fertilize a Larch until it has passed its first growing season.
While Larch trees fare well in cold weather, they are vulnerable to wind damage. Consequently, you should protect young trees with burlap screens that allow air and light in, but will block harsh winds.
Pests and Disease
The trees are prone to a number of pests and diseases ranging from aphids to fungal rusts to caterpillars to sawflies. It is generally impractical for homeowners to treat larch pests directly, due to the size of the tree and the difficulty of determining the culprit. The best approach is prevention -- only plant larches if you truly have the right conditions. However, you can call a professional arborist if a larch tree appears to be under attack. Fungal diseases commonly prey on the Larch. Among the most prevalent are:
- Phytophthora ramorum: The fungus causes extensive damage to the tree. It is spread from tree to tree by spores transported by the wind.
- Root rot: The fungus starts in the roots and spreads throughout the tree. Symptoms include dead leaves and infected cones. Advanced infections may eventually kill the tree.
- Needle blight: These fungi affect the Larch's needles. Infected needles are identified by a yellow tinge in the spring and a red-brown color in the summer. Diseased needles generally shed soon after they turn brown.
In addition to the aforementioned diseases, Larch trees are also susceptible to leaf-mining caterpillars, which eventually changes into moths and feed on the tree's needles until the foliage is completely ravaged.
For the Love of Larches
Because of their unusual nature, larches are treasured horticultural specimens. They have a soft, spritely appearance during the growing season capped off with an explosion of fall foliage that rivals any deciduous tree.