29 October 2010

Lovely Larchiness

Larches have become one of my favorite trees since my move to Montana five years ago.  My first autumn here, I took a drive east on Highway 200, and I remember asking my friend, "What's wrong with all those trees?" as we passed hillsides covered with yellow-needled larches.  I thought they were dying.  Little did I know!  Now I'm married to a botanist and naturalist whose favorite tree is the larch, which means I've learned lots about these amazing trees in the past couple of years.  And the more I learn about them, the more I am fascinated by them.

Alpine larches at Glen Lake
Though there are about 10 different species of larch worldwide, we have just two types of larches (or tamaracks) here in western Montana, the western larch (Larix occidentalis) and the alpine larch (Larix lyallii).  What makes these trees unique among conifers is that they are one of just a handful of genera that are deciduous.  In the fall the needles turn a glorious golden color that splashes across the landscape, a bright contrast to the deep greens of the pines and firs and spruces.  In the spring, that same bright contrast is evident, but this time the color is the vivid green of new growth.  Whether it be spring or fall (or, for that matter, anytime in between), the lovely larch is worth searching out.  

In Donald Peattie's A Natural History of Western Trees, he writes, "Concerning the Alpine Larch the fact which even most naturalists know best is that they have never seen it.  And so scattered is its growth, so wild and inhospitable its favorite haunts at timber line . . . that most people would not know where exactly to begin to look for it."

Yet here in western Montana, we can (comparatively) easily walk among the Larix lyallii.  If you haven't yet done so, I highly recommend you change that.  One of the easiest spots to reach, after just a two-and-a-half-mile hike, is Glen Lake in the Bitterroot Valley.  Carlton Ridge/Lolo Peak is another great spot for alpine larches.  This year my husband and I took our alpine larch pilgrimage to the Bass Creek Overlook, just as the colors were peaking at the end of September.  (A word to the wise:  this trail gets pretty steep--but the larches are worth it!)

Alpine larches at Bass Creek Overlook
Besides being a place that provides fairly easy access to the alpine larch,  we in western Montana are also near one of the very few places where Larix lyallii and Laruix occidentalis hybridize.  This happens not only because the ranges overlap here (there are quite a few places where this is the case), but because of of the unique geography of the area.  In places like Carlton Ridge (just below Lolo Peak), where there are steep, north-facing slopes, alpine larches creep down the slope while western larches creep up, and the two species hybridize.  Now seeing a hybrid larch is definitely worth putting on the bucket list!

Alpine larches, which are found at elevations of 4,000-8,000 feet, tend to turn golden and shed their needles about a month before their lower-elevation (2,000-7,000 feet) counterparts.   But if you missed the alpine larches changing color, do not despair!  You still have time to enjoy the changing colors of our western larches (which also  have the advantage of being much easier to get to).  There are even a few in various yards around Missoula, if you know where to look.  So now is the time to go take a walk in the Rattlesnake, or Pattee Canyon (see below--this was taken just yesterday, on on October 28th), 

Western larches at Pattee Canyon
or along the Kim Williams trail.  Or, if you don't mind a little driving, Seeley Lake has some spectacular old-growth larch stands, including what is claimed to be the largest Larix in the world.  

Aside from their deciduous nature, larches can be identified by their clusters of needles, which are found in groups of 15-30 on western larches and 30-40 on alpine larches.

alpine larch needles
western larch needles

Western larches have thin, scaly bark when they are young, but as they mature the bark thickens--up to 3-6 inches thick on old-growth trees.  As the trees age, the bark darkens to a reddish-brown, and comes to look very much like the puzzle-bark of Ponderosa pines (though without the intoxicating vanilla fragrance).  The thick bark helps protect the larch from fires, as does its ready ability to create new needles.  Larch trees are also able to sprout new branches from the side of their trunks, yet another unique adaptation that gives this species a high survival rate from forest fires. 

While there are a plethora of fascinating facts about larches, what may be most important to note is that they are here, in western Montana, and that we have the good fortune to be able to see them with so very little effort.  So don't just drive by their changing beauty at 75 mph on the freeway--take the time to seek them out, walk among them, and absorb their loveliness.  And if you want to share your favorite larch-viewing place, that would be wonderful!

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