The changing colors of the Western larch

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The color change for the Western Larch usually starts in early October and lasts two or three weeks. Photo by DON BARTLING

Along with the leafy trees that change colors each fall, one pine tree also puts on a colorful show each autumn. In late fall, the Western larch’s (Larix Occidentalis) needles turn yellow and then drop to the ground in November. The turning pine tree make for colorful hillsides in Boundary County.

A great place to see the Western larch’s colorful display on the mountainsides is along Highway 95 to Eastport, Highway 1 looking west to the Selkirks and Highway 2 going to Montana looking at the Cabinet Mountains.

The color change usually starts in early October and lasts two or three weeks. Western larch often grow among other conifers that stay green, creating a patchwork display of changing colors. After the needles fall off the tree, the larch is bare through the winter. Then, its display continues in spring when it grows bright green young needles, once again creating a patchwork of color with other surrounding coniferous trees. Through summer, the needles darken, and the cycle repeats itself come fall.

Often called tamaracks, Western larch are related to tamarack trees. They grow through much of Canada and into Alaska as well as in the northeastern United States and northern Midwest, Western larch are native to the northwestern United States and western Canada, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Western Larch ... by any other name Western larch is not a tamarack (Larix laricina), but it goes by several other names, including Western tamarack, hackmatack, mountain larch and tamarack. As trees go you have to be impressed with the Western larch: It’s the Inland Northwest’s fastest-growing conifer; its thick bark makes it more fire and insect resistant than other species and the straight, strong and slow decaying timber it produces is preferred for telephone poles, railroad ties and, most importantly, for structural support in mine shafts.

It’s typically found between 3,000 and 7,000 feet in most mountain ranges and can withstand winter temperatures that dip to minus-degrees Fahrenheit. To grow old it has to withstand forest fires and the advances of grizzly and black bears, which love to rip the lower portions of these trees by rubbing their backs against the trunk or chewing and scratching the bark right of the tree. Osprey and eagles make their nests in broken crowns, and woodpeckers and other birds call the larch home too.

While most North Idahoans are familiar with larches, many people still mistakenly call them tamaracks. Tamaracks, however, are native to the eastern U.S. and northern Canada. They’re the same genus, larix, but different species.

Whether you call Boundary County’s fall fireworks larch or tamarack may come down to a question of your roots. It is safe to call them whatever your Grandma called them, and then you can’t be wrong.

In the journals written by Lewis and Clark in 1806 the Western larch tree was described, but it did not get recognition as a distinct species until 1849. An age of 920 years is reported for a ring count from a Western larch stump in a clear-cut near Cranbrook, British Columbia.

Enjoy Boundary County and its beautiful trees!

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