January 2004
Plant of the Month
European Larch
(Larix decidua)
zone: Zone 4
by Linda Stover

Of the dozen larches native to the mainly mountainous regions of the northern hemisphere, only three species and their variant are commonly grown. European Larch (L. decidua) has been in Britain since the early 17th century and famous old trees planted in 1738 still flourish at Dunkeld in Perthshire. These and other magnicicent 100 ft. high veterans have become almost cedar-like in outline with branches hanging from the high crown.

For the first decades, larches are typically cone-shaped becoming more beautifully irregular and open as an older tree. They are deciduous conifers. They leaf out in early spring like the faintest watercolor wash sometimes with a solf pink overlay from the young comes. Summer shade is light; when the larch needles fall in November the floor of the forest is brightened by the yellow debris. The needles slowly decay to form fine acidic humus. One normally associates conifers with evergreens, but larch have chosen an alternative winter strategy. They lose their leaves in autumn to avoid  transpiring moisture when the soil is frozen. Larches are chiefly grown in areas of cold climate, with cold hardiness of -40 to -30 F.

European Larch has been used the most extensively of any of the larches. This is probably due in large part to the early settlers introducing it into the United States. It has a moderate growth rate to 60 - 70 ft. tall and 25 to 30 ft.wide. They prefer full sun and moist, but well-drained acid soils. They are intolerant of shade, pollution, and dry, shallow, alkaline soils. On the other hand they are very graceful, attractive trees that can tolerate moist, acid soils and heat where few other trees will thrive.

In the landscape you are more likely to see the European or Japanese Larch (L. kaempferi). These trees are less tolerant of wet soil, but much more adapted to transplanting than our American Larch (L. larcina), or Tamarack as it's commonly known. Consider using one of these graceful plants near a pond or water feature in large landscapes.

Plant larches in full sun in moist, well-drained soil. Though our native larch tolerates wet, soggy soils in the wild, it performs best in landscapes with moist, well-drained soil. Avoid dry sites and polluted locations. Properly placed larch trees need little maintenance. They suffer from just a few insects and disease problems. Healthy plants usually resist and tolerate the damage. Mulch to keep roots cool and moist. Water plants during dry periods.

Larch are good plants for large landscapes. They can create a fairy tale atmosphere in a garden, especially towads the end of the year. Being a deciduous conifer, the needles turn golden yellow to orange in the fall before falling to the ground. The tree silhouette is quite effective in the winter landscape.There have been several unfortunate stories of new homeowners and uninformed grounds managers cutting down their larch because the evergreen lost all its needles in the fall. We need to enlighten our customers and neighbors of the wonderful habits of the larch.

Did you know that Tamarack is very rot-resistant wood? It was once used for water pipes. Parts of the tree were hollowed out and individual pieces were connected. Sections of an old system were discovered during a construction project in downtown Milwaukee. Many pieces were still intact.

Key Benefits: Brilliant yellow and orange fall color followed by interesting winter silhouette. Bold, pyramidal form makes a fine, hardy street tree. Soft, fluffy tufts of needles and woody round cones. Deciduous.
Time of Flowering: No noticeable flowers.
Average Landscape Size: Fast grower to 60 to 70 ft. tall, 25 to 30 ft. wide.
Water Needs: Water regularly, when top 3 inches of soil is dry.
Sun Exposure: Full sun
Cold Hardiness: -40 to -30 F.

By: Linda Stover
      Lazaroff Garden Center, Inc.
      MNLA Nursery Committee Member

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