What is a Western Larch Tree? - Home Stratosphere

What is a Western Larch Tree?

Learn more about the beautiful Western larch trees, how they differ from the rest of the other Larch trees, how they reproduce, and the conditions upon which the Western Larch trees thrive.

This is an aerial view of a forest of Western larch trees.

Larix Occidentalis

The western larch tree is a species of larch that is native to very specific regions in western North America. They will only grow in mountainous regions in British Columbia and Alberta in Canada, and Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana in the United States.

This species is the most productive and prosperous of all the larch tree species. They grow to be quite tall and can live a long time. The tallest known western larch tree is 47 meters tall with a trunk diameter of 6.7 meters around! Western larch trees can live to be over 500 years old which may sound impressive until you hear that their sibling, the alpine larch tree, can live to be over 2000!

The western larch is a deciduous conifer. Usually, it is more common to have evergreen conifers, but this is not always the case! Coniferous trees possess cones and needles instead of leaves and flowers, and they usually persist on the tree all year long. But in the case of Larix occidentalis, they will drop their needles seasonally too!

We really love trees around here, that’s why we compiled a list of 101 Types of Trees from all around the world. We touch on different species of larch trees, fruit trees, evergreen trees, coniferous trees. Any tree you could be curious about, we cover it there!

Table of Contents

Related: Alpine Larch Tree | European Larch Tree | Tamarack Tree

What do Western Larch Trees Look Like?

Root System

Larch trees have root systems that are based on their growing regions. Because a lot of them live at high altitudes in rocky and dry soils, they must possess the type of roots that can support this type of life.

They develop lateral wide-spreading roots in order to remain strong and upright despite the strong blowing winds that come from mountainside living.

Larch trees will also develop a strong deep taproot to help keep the tree healthy in the drier seasons. Taproots (which they have in common with carrots) access moisture reserves deep in the earth when there is not enough moisture to be absorbed in the topsoils.

Dimensions

Western larch trees are large trees and will grow to be between 30 and 60 meters in height depending on their growing location. They have wide trunks as well, usually reaching 1.5 meters in trunk diameter.

The tallest known western larch tree is known to be 47 meters tall with a trunk diameter of 6.7 meters! It lives in Seeley Lake, Montana.

This is a close look at a mature and healthy Western larch tree.

Growth Pattern

The western larch tree has a very narrow conic crown. The thickest main branches tend to be upswept, with the side branches drooping down a bit. This growth pattern gives the tree a slight Dr. Seuss-style drooping shape.

Bark

Western larch trees develop very thick bark that makes the tree resistant to fire damage. Mature trees grow bark in plate-like sheets with dark grooves and cinnamon-colored scales. Western larch bark looks very similar to the bark of the ponderosa pine tree bark.

Foliage

Western larches grow deciduous needle-like leaves. These needles are very recognizable. They are around 2 inches long, and a light green color. They grow in clusters or bundles, much like the pine tree, and they are exceptionally slender. Western larch needles turn a striking yellow color before they fall off.

How do Western Larch Trees Reproduce?

Cones

Larch trees are monoecious, meaning that they possess both male cones and female cones on the same tree. However, just because a tree possesses both cones doesn’t mean that it is capable of self-pollinating.

Pollen cones (pollen-producing – male sexual characteristics) will release pollen around may, and it will be dispersed by wind.

Seed cones (ovule producing – female sexual characteristics) pick up that wind-dispersed pollen through their seed scales, which will then fertilize the ovule inside.

Larch cones are an ovoid cylindrical shape and are around 2 inches in length. Each cone contains between 40 and 80 seed scales, and each scale bears a whisker-like bract that sticks out beyond the scale.

Cones first emerge as a red/purple, and then eventually mature into a brown color. An old cone will remain on a tree for many years (sometimes over 10!) and will eventually turn a gray/black color. Cones mature 4-6 months after they are originally pollinated.

Sexual Maturity

Larch trees are very long-lived trees and therefore tend to take their time when it comes to reproduction. Some larch trees will start producing seeds and cones as early as 8 years old, though it is more common for them to start producing crops around the age of 25.

What are Some Other Larch Species?

The Eastern Larch Tree (Larix Laricina)

This is a close look at a forest of Eastern Larch trees during fall.

Eastern larches are sometimes referred to as the American larch tree, or sometimes as the tamarack larch tree. The word tamarack comes from the Algonquin word akemantak, which means “wood used for snowshoes”. These trees are native mostly to Canada, though certain populations exist in northwestern America as well. Eastern larch trees are small to medium trees, and grow to be between 10 and 20 meters tall.

The Alpine Larch Tree (Larix Lyallii)

This is a close look at a row of Alpine Larch trees up the hill.

Alpine larches are sometimes referred to as subalpine larch. There are native to northwestern North America, specifically at very high altitudes in thick rocky soils. They are small to medium-sized trees, with heights of 10-25 meters, with thin trunks and sparse crowns.

The European Larch Tree (Larix Decidua)

A close look at a European Larch tree growing at a mountaintop.

European larches are native to the mountainous regions of central Europe. They grow specifically in the Alps, the Carpathian mountains, and the Pyrenees. They are medium-sized trees with heights between 25 and 45 meters. They are also a very long-lived tree with an average lifespan of 1000 years!

Where do Western Larch Trees Grow?

This is a close look at a vast forest of Larch trees with a view of the snowy mountains in the distance.

Western larches are native to trees in northwestern North America. They grow specifically all over British Columbia and in southwestern Alberta in Canada. They can also be found growing in eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, northern Idaho, and western Montana.

Western larches will grow at elevations occurring between 500 and 2400 meters in elevation and grow most prosperously on the lower slopes of mountains. They tend to grow alongside subalpine fir trees, grand fir trees, and lodgepole pine trees as well. Otherwise, they will be found in pure stand western larch forest where there has been a wildfire.

What are the Growing Conditions of Western Larch Trees?

This is a close look at a forest of Larch trees with fall colors.

Soil

Larch trees can grow in a great variety of soil types, as long as they are well-drained. They cannot be waterlogged in the slightest. They grow best in rocky soils, or soil derived from wildfire ash.

Sun Exposure

The western larch tree, much like other conifers, prefers to exist in full sunlight.

Temperature

Western larches are very cold tolerant trees and can survive temperatures as low as -58 degrees Fahrenheit. They are not superbly tolerant to warm temperatures, which is why they exist at high altitudes.

How are Western Larch Trees Used?

Wood

Western larch wood is known for being very durable and tough. The wood is very flexible when peeled off in strips, and is resistant to rot. For these reasons, western larch wood has often been used for railroad ties and yacht building.

If being used commercially, the side branches of young larch trees must be pruned when they are young to remove the potential for developing knots.

Western larch wood is also highly prized for firewood in the pacific northwest. The wood is known to have a sweet fragrance when it is burned and has a distinct popping noise.

Medicinal

The sap of the western larch tree has traditionally been used as a medicine to help treat tuberculosis and laryngitis. Young shoots and leaves can also be brewed into a tea to help with cough and sore throat.

Wildlife

Seeds of the western larch cone are an important source of winter food for several bird species, including the white-winged crossbill, the redpoll, and the pine siskin. Ruffed grouse will also browse on the leaves and buds of the tree all year long.

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