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A native of the boreal forests of northern and central Europe, the European larch is a unique type of deciduous conifer tree. The tree produces gentle, spiral sprays of bright green needles that darken as the tree ages. As autumn arrives, the needles turn a brilliant yellowish orange hue, and the tree drops its foliage like other deciduous trees. The European larch is one of many different types of larch trees that predominately grow in Europe, Asia and North America. Wood from the tree is coveted for its flexible but very durable properties.
The European larch, scientifically known as Larix decidua, is a medium-sized tree that commonly reaches 80 feet (25 m) to 150 feet (45 m) at maturity. It peppers its native mountainous regions of central Europe, creating a thick, feathery backdrop to the forests of the Alps and Carpathians. In North America, the tree is called the tamarack, or western larch. The tree grows best in well-drained soils in cool climates and is perfectly suited for life on the fringes of mountains. This tree boasts many features that make it a desirable addition to the garden as well as a valuable production crop.
Gardeners value the larch for its wispy, pyramidal shape and abundance of color throughout the seasons. In the spring, sprightly green sprigs of needles on whorled sprays appear, producing an eye-pleasing foliage after the grays of winter. Tiny green or yellow flowers spring from branches to eventually produce tiny, cylindrical seed scales in a burst of deep red. The seed scales develop into musky brown cones, and the larch foliage deepens to a forest green hue. This tree is not fussy about its location except that it cannot tolerate extreme heat or soggy soil.
Aside from its pleasant appearance, the European larch is an important production crop. As a member of the pine family, the larch produces a resinous sap, called arabinogalactan, that gives the wood a water-resistant property. The wood is therefore sinewy and strong. Europeans favor the wood for durable rural fencing and boat building. Unlike many deciduous trees and some conifers, the larch tolerates very cold temperatures of at least -58° F (-50°C), and so is available to loggers in some the most remote areas of the boreal forests.
Despite it toughness, the European larch suffers from a tiny enemy: the Coleophora sibiricella moth larvae. This moth species feeds exclusively on the larch needles. Another moth larvae, Cydia illutana, devours the larch's cone scales. In the United States, the federal government has issued a European larch canker quarantine to stave the spread of the destructive insects and accompanying disease.