Western Larch - Alpine Larch - Tamarack - West Wind Hardwood

What are larch trees?  Why are they special?
What are tamarack trees?  And why the confusion with Larch?

Larch (Larix spp.) trees have always been special favourites of mine — it’s that whole deciduous-conifer thing.  Members of the pine family (Pinaceae), they have soft green needles that turn brilliant yellow in autumn and then drop.  A conifer that is not evergreen. Not many trees that can make this claim to fame.

But let’s start with what does Manning Provincial Park, British Columbia mean to me in all of this?  Well, it wasn’t the Larch Forest that grows near Frosty Mountain in the Park.  For me, it was the family camping trips; the camping trip that put an end to BC camping road trips.  So much summer drizzle everywhere we went.  At 6 am, we woke to claps of thunder immediately overheard in Christina Lake Campsite.  We pulled tents and tarps down, stuffed the car and dashed in just as big, fat raindrops started to fall.  We rolled into downtown Grand Forks for breakfast; cafes were just opening.  We tumbled into the booth and while the waitress handed out menus, she commented: “oh you’re campers”.  What was the giveaway eau de cologne of campfire smoke and wet jackets?

Manning Park was our next camping destination.  The weather was drying up and we were closing in on home.  Two things stand out in my memory.  One was the guided night walk with the family; being told to stand still with your eyes closed for a few minutes in order to acclimate your night vision.  And secondly, apparently, there was a fly fishing accident when Jan lost his small tin box of fishing flies in Lightening Lake.

It’s a long way from Christina Lake from Nowhere.

 

At this time, I had no idea that Manning Park offered so much more.  Recently my cousin shared photos from a group hike he participated in.  They were stunning and he graciously allowed me to use them here.  Thanks, Darcy and Brenda!!   If you think of autumn colour, the red and yellows of the East Coast come quickly to mind; a quintessential image.  If you think of fall hiking on the West Coast, you are probably picturing strolling through the lush greens of a coniferous forest with splotches of golden yellow western maples but not that far from Vancouver are the Frosty Mountain larches in Manning Park. These coniferous trees look like regular pine trees until fall. And then… BOOM! they turn a gorgeous gold colour.

Western Maples ‘pop’ the West Coast Treeline – Vancouver Island – October 2017
Photo by Shelley Nielsen

 

King of the Treeline – The golden larches that grow here are more formally known as alpine larches, or larix lyallii for serious clarification.  They are a very unique tree. Alpine larches are coniferous trees, just like a pine tree or a Christmas tree. But what makes them so special is that they are NOT evergreen: they actually change colour and shed their needles each fall the way a maple tree does.  They live at higher elevations, like the ones on Frosty Mountain at about 2000m above sea level.  Larches can live incredibly long — over 1000 years — which is surprising since they aren’t particularly large trees. In fact, one recent core sampling from a tree in the Rocky Mountains of Canada dated it to be almost 2,000 years old.

Larch Forest on Frosty Mountain – Manning Provincial Park – September 2018
Photo by Darcy Ferrier

Alpine Larch Trees – Manning Provincial Park – September 2018
Photos by Darcy Ferrier

 

Manning Park has a teeny tiny pocket of prime larch habitat. It’s high enough, dry enough, cold enough and rocky enough to support larch trees.

Hikers must be in good physical condition as this is considered a strenuous hike; luckily you don’t have to climb the entire mountain to enjoy the larches.  You can reach the best larch groves by hiking 9 km (one way) while gaining 775 m of elevation; round-trip is 18 km.  If you summit Mount Frosty, you’ll climb 1,150m on 11 km of the trail; round trip is 22 km and at the top, you’ll be rewarded with a stunning view of the North Cascades.

A priceless photo moment on Frosty Mountain Trail – September 2018
Photo by Darcy Ferrier

 

The best time to go is from July through September. Late July to mid-August there are lots of wildflowers to see. About the third week of September, the stand of sub-alpine Larch changes colour to gold.

Peak flower season is generally the first two weeks of August. Prior to that, the “spring” bloom and a variety of fungi are of interest. From mid-September through early October, the golden fall colours of the larch are spectacular, and the variety of fungi is extensive.

Whiskey Jack – on our way to the Sub-Alpine – September 2012
Photo by Shelley Nielsen

 

There are several types of larch trees that are native to North America.  Larix lyalli, or alpine larch, are the beauties in Manning Park.  Alpine larches are perfectly suited to their cold, snowy environment; usually found in pure stands, at high elevations where they help control slope erosion. Fine woolly hair shelters buds and twigs from harsh weather, and trees thrive in dry, gravelly soils.

Northern Alberta is home to Hackmatack or American Larch (also known as Tamarack) Larix laricina.  Tamaracks are very intolerant of shade and an early pioneer tree species that invades bare wet organic soils by seeding; typically appearing first in swamps, bogs and musket where they start the long process of forest succession.  According to one US Forest Service report, “The principal commercial use of tamarack in the United States is for making pulp products, especially the transparent paper in window envelopes.

The Algonquin people of the eastern United States named the Tamarack from the Algonquin word akemantak, meaning “wood used for snowshoes” as the wood is tough but flexible.  The British Columbia Ministry of Forests and Range’s online “Tree Book” defines the tamarack as “a small, slender tree which rarely grows more than 15 meters tall.”

Western larch (Larix occidentalis); sometimes called Western Tamarack can top out at a whopping 40 m tall.  Compare that to tamaracks and alpine larches, which usually grow to 15 m.  It has a range of just four US states (Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and one Canadian Province (British Columbia).  It grows in valleys and on the lower slopes of mountains in the southern Interior; usually growing in mixed forests but as a pioneer species, can occasionally be found in pure groups of trees after a severe wildfire. They have thick, fire-resistant bark.  Mature trees also shed their lower branches to keep from catching fire.  It demands full sunlight and grows well on the fire-blackened soil. Fire releases nutrients which it uses to grow faster than its companion species. Low temperatures limit the distribution of western larch. It is quite sensitive to frost damage because it continues to grow from bud-burst in spring through to September; most evergreen conifers stop growing in mid-July.

Western Larch is often seen growing with Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine. The tree does not do as well as Tamarack when dealing with broad changes in climatic factors as a species. These forests provide the ecological niches needed for a wide variety of birds and animals. Hole-nesting birds comprise about one-fourth of the bird species in these forests.

Western larch makes up only 0.7% of British Columbia’s total growing stock, yet it is a very important species, as it produces heavy, hard and strong wood. It is used mainly in building construction for rough dimension, small timbers, planks and boards, and for railroad cross-ties and mine timbers. As it is a visually appealing species, some high-grade material is manufactured into interior finish, flooring and doors.

Western Larch Flooring  – Sourced from Interior British Columbia
Photos by Jan Nielsen

 

Introduced larch species include Larix siberica, a native of eastern Russia, Siberia, and northern China.  This long-lived (up to a century is not uncommon), drought-tolerant tree is sometimes used in shelterbelts.  Also from Russia/China, Larix gmelinii (Dahurian or Kurile larch) growing equally well in saturated or well-drained soils.  It is very cold hardy and actually struggles to grow in areas with mild winters.

Japanese larch, Larix kaempferi (syn. Larix leptolepis) thrives in well-drained soils at high altitudes.  It is occasionally kept as bonsai and is often used as a garden ornamental.  Another common ornamental, Larix decidua or European larch, is an introduced species that has naturalized throughout North America.  The needles of European larch are longer and denser than other species, and the branchlets characteristically droop slightly downwards.  It is a popular tree sold at garden centres — a compact height of 3.5 metres and very prominent weeping habit make it a fantastic accent plant in the landscape.  These are very sensitive to pollution; don’t plant them near busy city streets.

Japanese Larch Bonsai

 

So how is it that the names tamarack and larch have been used so loosely here in BC? I suspect it may be that on the East coast, the related tree to our two larches is the tamarack.  Westward migrants called them tamaracks because they looked similar and of course, they brought the familiar common name.  Whichever you use may simply come down to your roots and acquaintances.

Two interesting uses of the larch silhouette in the US is with the Tamarack Brewing Company; hometown Lakeside, MT which uses the straight and perfect silhouette of a larch as their logo. In fact, you will recognize the larch on Oregon’s license plates. Interestingly, when that license plate was first designed, the larch was depicted in its golden fall hue. Unfortunately, many Oregonians’s complained about the “dead” tree on their license plates and the state switched from that fall coloration to the tree’s spring and summer coloration, dark green.

I would welcome input on other commercial uses of the larch silhouette worldwide.  Send them to me at shelley@westwindhardwood.com.

 

And some last words of wisdom for those who made it thus far.  If you’re stranded in the mountains and desperate for food, you can make a soup from young alpine larch twigs…presumably not very tasty.

Many thanks to Darcy Ferrier, his Wife, Brenda and Friends

For Sharing the Photos of their Hike up Frosty Mountain – Manning Provincial Park
September 2018


After-Thought

Warning…that tree is not Dead!!

larch

Foresight. If only I’d had an enough to have held back on my Newsletter article. I had no idea that the Mt. Hood area was home to the Western Larch. We had no time to stop and hike through the trees for a mission we were on but they could not be ignored. Their fabulous yellow simply pops along the landscape. Autumn had arrived, and while the west coast does not have the cache of the eastern fall colours, us west coasters know full well the fall beauty of our local trees.

Mount Hood’s east side forests are also “fire forests”, ecosystems where frequent fires are essential to forest health. Like the neighbouring Ponderosa pine that it typically associates with, Western larch has thick bark designed to protect mature trees from repeated fires. For added fire protection, larch drop their lower limbs at the tree mature, keeping the growing tree canopy high and out of reach of fires sweeping through the understory.

1 Comment

  1. Mmm – Larch Twig soup… probably fine if you are absolutely desperate, but just about as appetising as a worm-omlette….as much protein as a steak but not quite as appetising!!

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