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Kinnikinnick Native Plant Society

Focusing on native plants and conservation in North Idaho

 Original Species Paper by Lois Wythe 

Western Larch / Tamarack
Larix occidentalis

             Characteristics: One of our most beautiful, easily identified, and unusual conifers is the Western Larch (or, if you come from my part of Idaho, the Tamarack).  It is the largest of the larches and well known and loved for its colorful crown which is a lustrous green in the summertime, a spectacular yellow gold in the fall before it loses its needles, becoming a tall needle among the evergreen conifers around it on the hillsides.  We all watch for those amazing gold candles against the greens in the fall, and then wait breathlessly for the appearance of the chartreuse green needles which signify our late spring season.  Western larch grows in ecosystems subject to frequent fires and is not very tolerant of shade.  Young trees have thin and scaly bark, but this becomes deeply furrowed and reddish brown as the tree ages.  From a distance, and noting only the trunk, its bark can be mistaken for ponderosa pine.

            The leaves are very soft and deciduous needles, pale green until they turn the characteristic golden in the fall.  They grow in circular clusters of 15 to 20 on the spur twigs and singly on the current year’s growth.  When open, the cones are egg-shaped on short stalks, with wide scales and long slender bract tips extending beyond the scales.

            And this is a TALL tree, with the Idaho record set in 1977 at 142 feet tall with a 5-1/2 foot crown.  And it’s a skinny tree.  The sight of a grove of tamarack responding to a strong wind is truly breathtaking as these tall “toothpicks” nearly bend to the ground.  You will seldom find a tamarack broken off by wind.

            Commercial uses:  Western larch yields exceptionally high quality construction materials.  The heavy, hard wood is used for poles and wherever strong supports are needed.  It also makes good firewood and is frequently the wood of choice for woodstove users.  The bark contains a water-soluble gum which is used for offset lithography and in pharmaceuticals, paint and ink products.  (Arabino galactan)

            Medicinal uses:  You may be surprised to learn that this tree was very important to the Indians for its medicinal values and, as pointed out, is still used in making some modern pharmaceuticals.  The sweet-tasting gum produced hardens when it is exposed to the air and the Indians in our region would break off the gum and chew it.  Galactan, a natural sugar contained in the gum, resembles a bitter honey and can be used in medicinals and as baking powder says Parish, Coupe and Lloyd in their PLANTS OF SOUTHERN INTERIOR BRITISH COLUMBIA AND THE INLAND NORTHWEST.  (This team is also responsible for the information that it was described by Lewis and Clark in 1806, but not recognized until 1849 when it was named by Thomas Nuttall.)

            Medicinally, it is still used and recognized today.  Alma Hutchens, a noted authority on the uses of native American herbs, tells us that it is the inner bark which is useful because of its astringent and gently stimulating qualities and it was used especially to activate enlarged liver conditions.  It is also diuretic and laxative, and good for poisonous insect bites.  In his famous BACK TO EDEN, J. Kloss recommends it as a weak tea for eyewash and dropped in the ear to relieve earache.  As a tea, it is prepared using a teaspoon of the inner bark to a cupful of boiling water and steeped for 30 minutes.  It is used externally to clean ulcerated sores.

            At the Arboretum, although most native conifers were present when we began our work there, the Western larch was missing, perhaps due to is enemy, the larch caseborer (Coleophora laricella) which was a European import and is a major pest which feeds on the young foliage.  On Arbor Day in 2001, with the help of a group of young forestry students and some 4-H children, we replanted a grove of larch near the Ella Street boundary and they are about four feet tall by now.

            Landscape use:  If your property is large enough for an additional tall tree, you might like to consider tamarack, especially if you have children.  The soft foliage has much tactile interest for them, and the changing colors are always interesting.

            As punctuation among our many beautiful conifers on our surrounding hills, it has little competition.

 Photo by Ed Cushman