One of my favorite local trees is the western larch, Larix occidentalis. This conifer tree is unique because it drops its needles in the winter. Before they litter the forest floor, the needles turn a distinctive golden-yellow color. They stand out from the deep green shades of surrounding trees.
They have a delicate, almost lacey, growth form. Look at these needles radiating out in little groups of 15-30 on this branch. They are softer and more flexible than some of their pine tree cousins.
A home for wildlife
A wide range of wildlife relies on larch for food and cover. Squirrels feed on the cones and cache the seeds for future use. Songbirds nest and forage in their branches. They are especially important to pileated woodpeckers. This tree is an important food source for several kinds of grouse. Large mammals forage on the needles as a last resort since they are not as tasty as other trees.
Western larch trees reach a height of 98-197 feet. They can live up to 1,000 years. You may know them by one of their nicknames – tamarack.
The many uses of the western larch
People value the wood of this tree for burning and in construction. It’s a favorite firewood because it burns hot and has a sweet fragrance. We use larch wood in fencing, flooring, exterior trim, and cabinets. Thin strips of flexible larch wood are sometimes used in yacht construction.
Indigenous people used this tree in several ways. They used an infusion to treat laryngitis and tuberculosis. Resin was used for healing cuts. Resin tea helped relieve coughs and colds. They ate the cambium and sap. Native peoples chewed a gum from larch trees to ease sore throats. People made baking powder and medicine from galactan, a natural sugar in the wood.
We currently use the gum from the tree in lithography, paint, ink, food, and pharmaceuticals. Resin is used in producing turpentine and other products.
The photos above were taken near Sisters, Oregon. These trees are in the southern tip of the range for western larch. They occur north to southeastern British Columbia and east to western Montana.
I took the photo below in the Blue Mountains near Baker City, Oregon. Larch are common along stretches of the highway there. They grow at elevations between 1,600 and 7,900 feet and can tolerate temperatures as low as -58° F.
I’ve always wanted a western larch tree, but they grow too tall for my yard. Maybe I should settle for a bonsai version, like the one shown in my last photo. Hint hint… 😀