Larch, European (Larix decidua)

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European larch is the only deciduous conifer native to central Europe. It was introduced to Britain in the 17th century.

Common name: larch

Scientific name: Larix decidua
Family: Pinaceae

UK provenance: non-native

Interesting fact: larch trees can retain old cones on their stems for many years.

What does larch look like?

Overview: mature larch trees grow to 30m and can live for 250 years. Introduced to Britain in the early 17th century, larch comes in two 'flavours' – European and Japanese. It is a fairly fast growing coniferous tree. The crown is cone-shaped when young but becomes broad with age. The bark is pinky brown in colour, thick and develops wide vertical fissures with age. Twigs are amber or slightly pink, and hairless. 

Leaves: light green leaves are soft and needle-like, 2-4cm long, which grow in tufts from short woody knobs, or shoots, on the twigs. They turn golden yellow before falling in autumn.

Flowers: male flowers form on the underside of shoots, and are globular clusters of creamy yellow anthers. Female flowers are often referred to as ‘larch roses’. Comprising flower-like clusters of scales in pink, green or white, they grow at the tips of shoots. 

Fruits: after pollination by wind, the female flowers ripen into brown cones 3-4cm long with a hollow top. They gradually open their scales to release the winged seeds within. Seeds are distributed by wind.

Look out for: the needles form in clusters, like rosettes, along the twigs.

Could be confused with: any of the other larch species planted in the UK.

Identified in winter by: it loses its needles but the small oval cones stay on the tree.

Where to find larch

European larch is widespread in the UK, having been planted for forestry.

Value to wildlife

The seeds are eaten by red squirrels and a number of birds, including the siskin and lesser redpoll, while the buds and immature cones are eaten by black grouse. The caterpillars of many moths feed on the foliage, including the case-bearer moth and larch pug. Larch tortrix moth caterpillars eat the cone scales. 

Mythology and symbolism

In European folklore, larch was said to protect against enchantment. The wearing and burning of larch was thought to protect against evil spirits.

How we use larch

European larch was one of the first trees to be introduced for its timber. The timber has a pale creamy-brown sapwood and a red-brown heartwood. It is hard and resistant to rot, and is often used for fencing, gates and garden furniture.

Threats

Larch is susceptible to the fungal disease larch canker. It can also be affected by larch bark beetle and butt rot fungus. Most recently it has been affected by the ramorum disease, which affects and kills Japanese larch trees, and is spreading throughout western parts of the UK.

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