Last Saturday, while roaming the woods near Camp Sherman with my Oregon Master Naturalist class it finally hit me: tamarack is a common name for Western larch. I never made the connection before, but lately I have been making all sorts of connections.
Every other Saturday since the beginning of September, I have had the pleasure of attending classes for my certification as an OSU Master Naturalist. Together with a group of dedicated learners—many Land Trust volunteers—we dig into topics like geology, watersheds and most recently East Cascade forests, including the mysterious larch.
When I moved here 14 years ago, I loved the woods, collecting pine cones like an addict and inhaling the earthy smells, but I had no idea what trees I was seeing or smelling. The first time I walked into Shevlin Park in the late fall, I saw these gorgeous tall, soft trees that were clearly some type of pine, but the poor stand was dead and ALL the needles were falling off.I thought the trees had some horrible tree disease. Then I found out it was a Western larch.Western larch or Larix occidentalis is the only deciduous conifer so it sheds its needles each fall and grows new ones in the spring. The Shevlin Park trees weren’t dead, they were just doing what all deciduous trees do in the fall…getting ready for winter, just like us!
The Western larch grows between 2,000 and 7,000 feet. It likes cool, moist sites with lots of sunshine. The Western larch is fast growing and very tall and straight. They can grow up to 180 feet and have what my friend Kirin calls a “cute cone”—small, narrow and shaped like a nutmeg. It is indeed cute.
A fully grown Western larch will only have limbs on the upper third of the tree. The needles, which feel soft and look feathery, are narrow and flat and are from one to two inches long. They grow from little wood nubs in clusters and turn that brilliant yellow each fall. Come spring they sprout vibrant green clusters that cheerfully herald a new season.
Western larch do not make extensive forests on their own, but rather grown in mixed conifer forests with Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, Grand Fir, Hemlock, an others. They are shade intolerant and once they get going, can grow up to three feet a year. They live a long time, up to 500 years.
Western larches need frequent disturbance. This means they respond well after fire, wind, or soil movement. The bark, as the tree ages, becomes deeply furrowed and turns a reddish brown making it strong, thick and fire-resistant. The Western larch is also a great tree for wildlife. Bald eagles, goshawks and other raptors like the tall straight trees. As dead standing trees, larch snags are great for owls and woodpeckers and the seeds are valuable food for birds and squirrels. Native Americans chewed the resin as a candy and used the tree’s needles and bark to cure colds and arthritis. Today, the same ingredients are used as an emulsifier in ink and paint.
If you have a chance to get down to Camp Sherman, on the Land Trust’s Metolious Preserve, the Western larches are immediately obvious and lovely and currently at their peak. Hurry out there as they won’t last long.
1. OSU. Oregon Master Naturalist Class, “Forest Ecology” by Stephen Fitzgerald, Oct. 20, 2012
2. ODF pamphlet; “Forests for Oregon”, fall 2007
3. PSU. Oregon Encyclopedia- Oregon History and Culture 2009