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Larch, Larix 2

The last article about larch on our website is dated April 2006 and was from a 1996 article created by Pine Garden Bonsai.  I thought it was past time to put an Ohio spin on this tree care fact sheet.  Larch is such an interesting conifer.  They are deciduous like Redwood and bald cypress that lose their foliage in the winter.  The Japanese love larch, the English love larch and Americans love larch.  Each native species is a separate species.  Each has slightly different “needle” size.  The needles are soft to the touch.  The cones, unlike pines point up and don’t hang down.  Art Skolnic, a bonsai artist from Toronto Canada brought some collected larch to the MABA show in Michigan many years ago.  They were awesome – and sold out before lunch on the first day. 

There are 11 recognized species of larch.  European Larch are sometimes found in the bogs of Scotland. They also grow across northern Europe and Russia.  Usually in wet soil conditions. Collected specimens are often stunted and very twiggy.  Japanese Larch are a member if the short bracted Eurasian family of Larch. Larch are describes as having a wide spreading crown and a wide shallow root system. Shallow rooting makes them ideal for bonsai.  They are good candidates for forest/slab plantings.

American Larch, which is a separate group, is also known as Tamarack.  They are less heat tolerant as they grow naturally throughout Canada and Alaska, with habitats extending down into the states down as far as West Virginia.  As they move south they are limited to higher – cooler elevations.  American Larch “needles” are larger, 1.5” and noted to be blue-green, but their cones are smaller.  Their cones are noted to be reddish/purple in color.  My own larch has set cones at about 3 years.  Each cone has 30-50 seeds.  Western larch can grow up to 197’ tall and reach nearly 5’ in diameter. I saw a website offering 5,000 seeds for $2. As you might guess it is very cold tolerant, reportedly to Zone 2!  Some species which are from warmer places are reportedly less hardy (Zones 4-7) and may need to be protected below 15. The bark is reddish brown and craggy.  The back on new shoots is pinkish/tan.  The wood is rot resistant.  Bonsai specimens frequently have jin or shari.

Larch MUST be transplanted in early March, just before their needles appear. I made the mistake (once) of trying to repot a really great larch after it had “leafed out”.  This quirk is the one major drawback of larch and must be taken seriously. If your Larch has needles on it, wait until next year. However the branches of Larches can be wired and trimmed any time of the year. However, major styling is best done at the end of winter. New growth is very flexible; so you can get the branches to grow where you put them.  Larches growth is apically dominant so the branches at the top of the tree need to be frequently to encourage growth of the lower branches.

Larch need a lot of water, so water them every day it doesn’t rain from the time the foliage emerges until it turns golden brown in October.  If you keep your larch in a sunny location you may need to water two times a day during the heat of summer. If you don’t you may see burned tips on the foliage.  The best place for your larch is where they get morning sun and afternoon shade, or filtered light all day. I keep my larch under a large maple tree in the summer and have never seen burned tips.

I fertilize weekly with liquid fertilizer with tomato or azalea food.  I sometimes add a poo ball to every 6” of pot. I get good growth all season.  Sometimes I trim the new growth every 2 weeks or the plants get too leggy and do not produce the “twiginess” you can get with regular pruning.  The buds along a twig produce 20-50 needles in a whirl.  Without pruning, new growth my reach as much as 20” in a season.  Cut them back to the shortest length that gives you the direction you want the branch to grow.  It may be one bud on a mature specimen.  I read that cuts should be covered with grease or Vaseline, not cut paste.  Grease speeds healing and reduces the size of the callus that develops.  Because they grow rather rapidly, branching can be developed in 6 years but good trunk taper may take as long as 10 or 12 years.  Check your wire frequently to avoid marks.  An accomplished bonsai artist may attempt bud or thread grafting to get branches where they want them.  The secret is that this is best done in June, not the early spring when the wood is full of water.  Besides fungus, the only other item mentioned that may attack your larch are caterpillars.

 Tree of the Month: Larix, Larch

By Ken Schultz