Time for larching around

This week Dick Warner ponders over the paradoxical deciduous larch tree.

Time for larching around

I stood looking at a larch tree and thinking what a paradox it was. A typical conifer with needles and cones but, unlike all the others, it’s deciduous. The only deciduous conifer native to Europe, and most of those from other continents are related to it.

The European larch is not native to Ireland or Britain, though quite a lot of them have been planted in both countries. It comes from the mountains of central Europe, the Alps and upland areas in France, Germany and Austria, and usually only grows wild at high altitudes.

The exception to this is some lowland stands in Poland and the Czech Republic. The lowland trees are interesting to biologists because they’ve been separated from the others for several centuries and are starting to show differences. This is thought to be an example of ‘speciation’ at work, the process, which so fascinated Charles Darwin, by which a new species is created.

We don’t know precisely when larches were introduced into Ireland but it was probably quite early, there’s certainly an enormous old specimen growing at Avondale in Co Wicklow. In Britain there are references to trees well established in 1629 and 1664. It was popular because it’s quite fast growing, particularly when it’s young, and produces an extremely valuable timber.

Its growth rate doesn’t compete with some of the exotic spruces and pines that were introduced at a later date but its timber is far superior and is particularly sought after by the builders of wooden boats. It was also introduced as an ornamental tree into many of the cooler parts of north America where, for some reason that I don’t fully understand, people value the fact that it retains its small cones for up to five years.

In Ireland there was a limited fashion for it as a forestry and estate tree in the late 19th and 20th centuries. In fact most of the larches planted in Ireland in recent years have been Japanese larch, not the European species.

I tried to buy some trees from a nursery a couple of years ago and all they could offer me were the Japanese ones. The two are quite similar. The main difference is most obvious in winter when the twigs of Japanese larch are a distinct orange-red colour while those of the European species are the colour of straw. There is also a hybrid between the two species which first occurred in Scotland but is now bred deliberately as it seems to have some of the better characteristics of both its parents.

Apart from their commercial value, larches certainly merit planting as ornamental trees. The Japanese do this extensively. They admire the pale green of the needles and the cones, which are pinkish when they first appear. They grow symmetrically when young but develop other shapes on maturing.

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