Larch Trees Are An Evergreen, But They Are Not Always Green

Category: Banff National Park

A Larch is an Evergreen that doesn’t always stay green, why?

Not even tree experts can really answer this question. There are some ideas as to why these unique trees drop their “leaves”, for example:

  • No needles on the branches mean the snow can shed and prevent ice build up, and this can reduce the possibility of broken branches.
  • Annual needle loss might help the trees fight off pests and disease.
  • They don’t need to worry about “feeding” the needles during the long cold winters like other conifers do, which means their energy can go to keeping their “core” warm.
  • The new needles that grow every spring are easier to maintain, as they are in a sense, disposable. In addition, the new needles are extremely efficient, which results in a high rate of photosynthesis.  This is a good thing, as the growing season in the upper alpine is very short – approximately 4 months.
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SubAlpine Larch, also known as Lyalls Larch, Lake Louise, Big Beehive trail, Fall 2015
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Old and new cones, new soft green, spring growth. This tree is in my yard.
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Ready to shed needles Big Bee Hive Trail, Lake Louise, 2015, Take a Hike With Your Children

Larches are also called Tamaracks, and there are three species of Larch/Tamarack that are found in Alberta: Subalpine Larch, Western Larch and Tamarack, and all three of these species lose their needles in the fall. However, it is the glamorous golden Subalpine Larch that draws the “fall weekend warriors” to the mountains.

The Subalpine Larch, also Known as Lyalls Larch (Larix lyallii) are THE TREES that everyone goes to see. If you have traveled to Lake Louise in the fall, you know exactly what I mean, as the road,  parking lots and trails are full of people wanting to hike to Larch Valley to admire the magnificent golden larches.

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Colour Contrast – Fall Eye Candy, Lake Agnes, 2015, Take a Hike With Your Children
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My boys in a Grizzly Bear Dig, Larch Valley, 2011 Grizzly bears frequent this area, hiking in parties of 4 or more is required. Take A Hike With Your Children
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Larch Valley, 2011, my oldest. Take A Hike With Your Children

Another name for the Subalpine Larch is Lyalls Larch, named after David Lyall – a Scottish surgeon and botanist, who collected many specimens while serving with the North American Boundary commission

Subalpine Larch Facts:

  • They like dry, gravelly soils, and their roots help with soil erosion.
  • They usually grow in pure stands, which simply means they don’t have “squatters”, other tree species, living with them.
  • Their branches are covered in a dense, white, tangle of hairs, which after a few years turn black, therefore giving the appearance that the branch is dead.

  • They have a contorted, rugged looking appearance, and given the harsh,  high alpine conditions that they live in, that isn’t surprising. These trees spend 8 months of the year in the cold!
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Just starting to turn. Blackened Branches. Larch Valley, 2013 Take A Hike With Your Children
  • A small tree does not mean a young tree – the subalpine has a very short growing season.  A 15m tree, although not tall, could be well over 300 years old! As a matter of fact, some of the oldest living trees in Canada are Larch trees that are found in British Columbia’s, Manning Provincial Park. It is speculated that they may be over 1,900 years old. (Tree Canada Blog – November 27, 2012) They Can be Used As an Emergency Survival Food.
  • The young shoot tips of the Alpine Larch can be made into a soup for emergency survival. Gee, I wonder how that would taste?
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Contorted Appearance, Big Bee Hive Trail, Lake Louise 2015, Take A Hike With Your Children

Do They Have Any Commercial Value?

Yes….Tourism! Look at the “weekend warriors” that flock out to the Lake Louise/Banff area every September for 2 or 3 weeks to see the colors!!!! Did you go, and were you able to drive to the lot or did you need to take the shuttle?

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Visitors at the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House, Lake Louise, Take A Hike With Your Children, 2015
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My “Weekend Warriors”, getting ready to head back down Larch Trail. It was a long, fun day…too bad it doesn’t look like they are having fun! 2011 Take a Hike With Your Children

The Western Larch (Larix Occidentalis)  is another larch found in Alberta, but only in the southern part, close to the British Columbia border. As the name implies, these grow on the western slopes, and are common at lower elevations. 

Western larch Facts

  • Fairly symmetrical in shape
  • Seldom grow in pure stands, and are mixed with pine and spruce
  • Thick deeply furrowed bark (3-6 inches deep) on mature trees helps them withstand fire
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Image from http://for.gov.bc.ca
  • Mature trees shed their lower branches to keep from catching fire.
  • Seedlings and younger trees are often found in burnt out areas.
  • Sun-loving, and do well in burnt out areas
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Image from http://for.gov.bc.ca

It Is An Important Tree For The Forestry Industry

  • The hard, sturdy, yet flexible wood is used in heavy construction and for railway ties.
  • The naturally rot-resistant resins and tannins in the heartwood of the larch are ideal for use in outdoor buildings, decking, posts, poles, and fences.
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Wood from the Western Larch is ideal for outside projects. Big Beehive Gazebo, Lake Louise, 2015 Take a Hike With Your Children

3. Tamarack/Eastern larch/ Hackmatack (Larix laricina)

The name Tamarack comes from the Algonquin word, akemantak, which means, “wood for snowshoes.” (British Columbia, Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations,)

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Image from the web

Tamarack Interesting Facts

  • They are Symmetrical and short
  • Grow 5-10m high in the Rockies
  • They prefer to grow in cold, wet, poorly drained, boggy soils; they are usually found with Black Spruce.
  • They have a thin, smooth grey bark when young, that turns reddish brown and scaly as it ages.
  • The branches are “hairless”
    Tannin from the bark can be extracted and used for tanning leather
  • In the days of wooden ships, Tamarack roots were used for joining ribs to deck timbers.

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Image from http://for.gov.bc.ca

Medicinal Uses*

  • A poultice made from the bark can help with skin conditions, such as Eczema and Psoriasis
  • Gum from the Bark can be chewed for indigestion
  • The Ojibwe used the dried leaves as an inhalant and fumigator
*source: Terry Willard Ph.D., Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Rocky Mountains and Neighbouring Territories.

As you can see, the Larches/Tamaracks, provide so much more than just “fall eye candy” for us

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Chester Lake, Kananaskis, 2013 Take A Hike With Your Children
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Arnica Lake, Banff National Park, 2016 Take A Hike With Your Children
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