University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime News Article
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LARCHES LARGE AND SMALL
 
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
 
           
If you see a tall, very pyramidal tree along roads and wet areas with lovely yellow fall color, it may be our native eastern larch (Larix laricina).  The eastern larch, the related European larch, and their much shorter cultivars (cultivated varieties) make lovely landscape plants, if sited properly.
          
Larches are interesting in that with their short (one inch long), blue-green needle-like leaves they look like evergreens, but they aren’t.  After their leaves turn a golden yellow in autumn they fall, so these trees are “deciduous” just like maples and oaks.  But, since trees produce brown cones for fruiting structures, they are referred to as deciduous “conifers”— a rare combination as most conifers (such as the pines, which they are in the same family with) are evergreen.  Other deciduous conifers include the dawn redwood, bald cypress, and ginkgo.
           
The eastern or American larch is native to much of North America, from Alaska across Canada, down to the Midwestern and southern New England states.  Since it tolerates salt, you may see it along the coasts of New England and eastern Canada.   As you might surmise from its native range, it is quite hardy—from USDA zones 3 to perhaps 5 (annual average minimum air temperature of -40 to -10 degrees F). 
           
This and the other larches grow well in average soils, but also in acidic peaty (low pH) soils or wet soils.  It doesn’t grow well in dry soils, nor does it tolerate air pollution of urban areas. Larches need full sun, but some may tolerate part shade (4 to 6 hours of direct sun daily). 
           
Growing 50 to 60 feet high when mature, and 30 to 40 feet across at the base, the eastern larch is best sited in large landscapes with plenty of space.  There are a few cultivars that are much smaller that you may find, suitable for small residential landscapes or rock gardens.  ‘Lanark’ makes a green globe shape, only about 4 feet high and wide.  ‘Newport Beauty’ is about half this size, 2 feet high and wide, forming a cushion with dense stems. ‘Deborah Waxman’ has the pyramidal shape of the species, but only grows about 5 feet high and 3 feet wide in the first 10 years.
           
The European larch (Larix decidua) is even larger, growing at maturity about 80 feet high and 40 to 50 feet wide.  You may find the much smaller ‘Pendula’ with weeping shape and branches.  It only grows to 10 to 15 feet tall and 6 to 10 feet across. ‘Puli’ is a European larch that too is weeping, but with branches close to the trunk. It commonly reaches 6 to 8 feet high, and 2 feet wide.
           
This native of northern and central Europe is seen there as forests in the mountains of central European countries.  It is similar to the eastern larch in needs, except it is more tolerant of dry soils.  It is quicker growing and has larger cones than our native larch.   Although not quite as winter hardy (maybe through zone 4, or to -30 degrees), the European larch is fine for all but the coldest northern landscapes.  It will take some more heat than our native larch, growing into the mid-Atlantic states (USDA zone 6, or to -10 degrees), but suffers in more intense heat further south.
           
Finally, there is a third species of larch you often may find—the Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi)—native to the mountains of Japan.  It is very similar to the European species, only grows into slightly hotter climates (USDA zone 7, or to about 0 degrees F), and is slightly larger.  It is perhaps the most ornamental of the larches, again for large landscapes. 
           
As with other larches, there are cultivar choices of the Japanese that you may find for smaller landscapes.  ‘Diana’ has weeping branches and twisted leaves, growing to about 20 feet high and about 10 feet wide (perhaps 8 feet high in the first 10 years).  Another weeping from is ‘Pendula’, usually seen about 4 to 6 feet high and 3 to 5 feet wide.  ‘Nana’ is a common name meaning dwarf, which this cultivar fits.  Only growing about 3 to 4 feet high and wide, the rounded form is good in rock gardens or small sunny areas. 
           
If you’re looking for a really hardy larch, more unusual and less common, the Dahurian larch (Larix gmelinii) and some cultivars can be found at specialty nurseries selling dwarf conifers and rock garden plants.  With the species being native to northeastern Siberia, this larch has a similar range to our native eastern one, being quite intolerant of hot climates.  Otherwise, growing conditions are similar to the other larches. Usually you will find a dwarf cultivar of this species, the most common being ‘Romberg Park’. In 10 years it only grows to about 2 feet high and about 3 feet wide.


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