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Fall Color and Larch

November 12, 2008

By Eric Larson


larchMost of the Maples have dropped their leaves, save for the Norway Maples whose golden yellow fall color seems to handgon until Christmas.  Thanksgiving anyway.  The most vivid fall color in the garden is coming from smaller trees, shrubs and a few herbaceous perennials. Let’s talk about one of them.

When I was a student in Wisconsin way back before the automobile was invented, I would spend Thursday’s tramping through the glacial formations of southern Wisconsin with my geology classmates.  Besides viewing drumlens and moraines, I also got a chance to see the mostly native flora of Aldo Leopold’s landscape  of inspiration. One of the trees that I loved the most is the Larch, or Tamarack, which is the Algonquin native language name for the tree.  It along with its European brethren are members of the Pine family, Pinaceae.

Preferring bogs and swamps, Larch is one of the most cold-hardy trees, growing at temperatures of –65C in the windiest coldest climates on Earth. They will grow to 50 or 60 feet tall, but in the far northern range of its nativity, the specimens are stunted by wind, cold and possibly by herbivore browsing. The native range is mainly in Canada and the northeastern United States, as far south as West Virginia and west to Minnesota. There is also a small population in Alaska often listed as a separate variety, but some regard it as so similar that there is no distinction. 

Larch is one of a small group of plants that are deciduous conifers, some others being Bald Cypress (Taxodium) and Dawn-Redwood (Metasequoia). We have these all growing at Marsh Gardens, with plans to fill out the morphological collection in the coming years.  The Larch has the most vivid fall color, with a clear yellow. When visiting Maine and points north, the magical time of year in the Larch forest is fall when the glow from the forest canopy seems to light up even the darkest night. 

The wood of this tree is tough yet resilient, making it a good subject for the construction of snow shoes among other items.  It also has herbal qualities that make it useful in the native American pharmacopeia, being used for skin ailments from frostbite to hermorrhoids, and for general aches and pains. 




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