Larches are a very cool tree species. They grow in crazy remote and harsh places, they are long-lived, resilient, and turn a brilliant yellow autumn color in the fall. Larix lyallii, or the alpine larch tree, is also known by the names of the golden larch tree, the subalpine larch tree, the mountain larch tree, or the tamarack tree. However, the correct identification of the tamarack is actually the American larch tree, Larix lacina.
Larches are an interesting species of the tree because they are both conifers and deciduous. Usually, trees are an evergreen conifer, meaning that their foliage consisting of cones and needles will persist all year long, regardless of the season.
However, alpine larch trees possess needles and cones that will drop seasonally, very similarly to broadleaf trees that possess flowers instead of cones. In other words, a deciduous conifer!
Alpine larches are very cold hardy trees and can survive very low temperatures and harsh conditions. They are also an incredibly long-lived species. The oldest known alpine larch tree is said to be over 2000 years old and lives in Kananaskis Alberta. It is the oldest tree in all of Canada!
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!
What do Alpine Larch Trees Look Like?
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.
Alpine larch trees are on the smaller side, and will only achieve heights between 10 and 25 meters. Their height is entirely dependent on their growing region. When they grow at higher elevations, they will be much shorter because of the intense windthrow. They will be much taller at lower elevations.
Alpine larch tree growth is thought of as being dwarfed and contorted. This comes from the conditions that they grow under. Dry soils, low moisture, and high winds usually result in irregular-looking trees.
The alpine larch has a semi-straight trunk with a sparse conical crown. Branches normally grow in a horizontal fashion, though some will grow pendulously and gnarled. Branches are irregularly spaced along the trunk.
Alpine larch tree bark is thin and peels off in flakes. Young trees will have a yellow/gray bark, and older trees will have darker red/brown with developed furrows and small scaly plates.
The alpine larch grows needle-like leaves. Alpine larch needles are 4 sided and grow in clusters of 30-40 in a group on a short spur. A larch needle is a pale blue/green color, and since it is a deciduous tree, it will turn a golden yellow before falling off in the fall.
How do Alpine Larch Trees Reproduce?
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.
A cone is just under 2 inches long, as is covered in thin scales with bracts that extend over each scale. Seed cones are either red or purple when they are young, whereas pollen cones are yellow when they are young. Both mature into a dark red/brown color.
Alpine larch trees can start producing cones as young as 8 years old, though they won’t experience their highest cone production years until they are 40-50 years old. This may seem delayed, but when considering that alpine larches are capable of living over 2000 years, that gives them plenty of years to engage in reproduction.
What are Some Other Larch Species?
The Eastern Larch Tree (Larix Laricina)
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 Western Larch Tree (Larix Occidentalis)
Western larches are native to the mountains of northwestern North America. They are very closely related to the alpine larch, and they grow in similar locations. However, western larches grow at lower elevations in better conditions, and will therefore grow to be taller, 30-40 meters, and have less of a mangled growth pattern.
The European Larch Tree (Larix Decidua)
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 Alpine Larch Trees Grow?
Alpine larch trees grow in the high elevation rocky mountains of northwestern North America. They can be found growing all over British Columbia, western Alberta, western Montana, and in a disjunct population in the north cascade range of Washington. There is a trail leading to an isolated grove near a lake in the North Cascades National Park.
These trees grow between elevations of 1800 and 2400 meters in elevation, and will often be found very close to the tree line. They are a very cold hardy tree and can withstand low temperatures. Alpine larches can be found growing alongside the whitebark pine tree, the subalpine fir tree, and the Engelmann spruce tree.
What are the Growing Conditions of Alpine Larch Trees?
Alpine larch trees grow mainly in thin rocky soil. They can tolerate dry soil but will grow most prosperously in soil that is moist and well-drained.
Alpine larch trees can tolerate both shade or full sun.
The alpine larch is a cold-hardy tree and is capable of withstanding low winter temperatures and snow as well as high and dry summer temperatures.
How are Alpine Larch Trees Used?
Larch wood is known for being strong, heavy, and durable. It is the hardest softwood available. However, alpine larch wood is not used commercially because of the remote growing locations of the tree, their relatively short size, and their irregular and gnarled growth pattern.
The buds and twigs of the alpine larch tree are an important source of winter food for bighorn sheep and mountain goats.