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Tree 4: European Larch

Latin name: Larix decidua
Family: Pinaceae
Origin: Alps and Caucasian mountains
Height: up to 35m
Lifespan: 600-1,000 years
Autumn leaf loss: Deciduous
Gender Type: Monoecious (Male and female flowers on same tree)

Larches are very unusual, being both cone-bearing and deciduous. In the autumn larches shed their needles, and regrow new ones. This is an adaptation to their native alpine climates and allows them to tolerate extreme cold and to grow much bigger horizontal branches than their evergreen neighbours. Bare branches reduce the surface area that the tree presents to oncoming winds so snow can fall through the branches to the ground. These factors reduce the likelihood of branches breaking from the weight of snow or the force of the wind.

Larch trees were introduced to the UK for the qualities of their timber, being hard, durable and rot-proof. It was traditionally used for boat building, water troughs, barns, roofing shingles, bridges and pit props, not to mention the weird and wonderful Alpenhorn. Nowadays wood from commercial larch plantations is used for fine floors, fencing, gates, garden furniture. and pulp for paper.

In spring, the soft, dainty, fragrant needles appear in clusters along the branches. The yellow tufty male flowers release pollen which is carried by the wind to pollinate the green female flower buds. They become pink-tinged ‘larch roses’, ripening into small, soft brown cones. All summer the larch wafts an airy shade of luscious bright green before turning a glorious gold in the autumn. Meanwhile the seeds within the cones develop triangular wings to help them disperse. The cones remain on the stems for ten years or more.

Compared to other coniferous woodland which can be rather cold and dark, the open canopy of larches is warm, moist and light, providing ideal conditions for wildflowers, moths, butterflies, fungi and a variety of birds.

This tree was important in European, Lapp and Siberian folklore, being traditionally used for protection. Preparations were used as medicines and the resin was traditionally spread on injuries to prevent infection.

Larch is susceptible to the fungal disease larch canker, larch bark beetle and butt rot fungus. Most recently, as we have seen in the Limb Valley, it has been affected by the ramorum disease,

The larch tree is a playground of textures and excitement. Here are some suggestions for exploring how it reacts with our senses.