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By Ed Robinson
As children, we learned at school that deciduous trees grow new leaves each year, dropping their old leaves in autumn, bringing bright colors to our forests. The conifers or “evergreens” have needles that remain on the trees all year long. It turns out that there are conifers that are also deciduous, and the one closest to home is known as the Eastern larch tree, Larix laricina.
First let’s make sure we are talking about the right tree. Scientists disagree on many things in the biological world, and they currently propose that there are somewhere between 10 and 14 species within the Larix genus. In North America we can find three of these species, the Western larch and the high altitude subalpine larch of the Pacific northwest and Canadian southwest, and the Eastern larch. Our Eastern larch can be found from the Alaskan Yukon to the Canadian Maritimes, and northeastern US states from Minnesota to Maine (although a few are known to exist as far south as Maryland).
Things still get a little confusing, since folks have a habit of using local names for things like larch trees. All of these names are sometimes substituted for the Eastern larch – American larch, black larch, red larch, tamarack and hackmatack. Hackmatack is thought to have been an Abenaki word and tamarack is an Algonquin word that translates to “wood used for snowshoes.”
Our Eastern larch trees are in the small to medium range for conifers, reaching heights of 30 to 70 feet depending upon their location. Trunk diameter can reach 24 inches. Their grayish brown bark is tight but with a flaky appearance and red color underneath. The tree has needle-like leaves about one inch long and tiny cones less than one inch long that turn from red to brown in autumn when they open to release up to 25 seeds. The leaves begin life in spring with a light green color but in the fall, they turn golden yellow. There is a small shelter belt of Eastern larch trees at our place in New York, and I always enjoy the sight of the trees glowing bright in an Indian summer sun.
These unusual trees are cold tolerant, able to survive temperatures that can drop as low as -85 degrees F in far northern winters. They are also able to handle a wide variety of soil conditions including heavy clay or coarse sand in upland areas, or woody peat and sphagnum peat in bogs and muskeg regions. The larch tree is often one of the first trees to reestablish itself in areas that have suffered severe forest fires, taking advantage of full sunlight. They have a life span up to 200 years. In extreme environments, Eastern larch trees may be limited to only 15 feet in height. By comparison, there is a Western larch tree in the Seeley Lake area of Montana called “Gus” that is over 160 feet tall, with a trunk that measures 23 feet around, and an estimated age of 1,000 years.
The Native Americans understood the value of the larch wood since it is tough and durable, yet flexible when cut into thin strips. Not only did it find its way into snowshoes, but the elbow shaped crooks were used for the knees of wooden boats. Preparations of larch bark and roots became treatments for wounds, frostbite, arthritis and even hemorrhoids – no need for Preparation H! Early Western settlers used larch poles in making corduroy roads due to the wood’s rot resistance. Today, larch wood is used in pulp, posts, poles, rough lumber and fuel wood. The Japanese have long used dwarf cultivars for bonsai trees.
These lovely trees also have value for wildlife of all sorts. Veerys, warblers and song sparrows are known to nest in larches, and red squirrels love the seeds. Snowshoe hares will feed on new seedlings and porcupines feast on the inner bark during long winters. Insects can be destructive to larch trees, particularly after fires or wind damage have caused cracks in the trees. Of course, these insects often become food for birds, and the eventual death of damaged larch trees opens the forest for regeneration of other species such as black spruce.