Identify the Larch

Trees in the Pine Family: Pinaceae

Western Larches with gold yellow leaves against a mountain backdrop.

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Larches are conifers in the genus Larix, in the family Pinaceae. They are native to much of the cooler temperate northern hemisphere, on lowlands in the far north, and high on mountains further south. Larches are among the dominant plants in the immense boreal forests of Russia and Canada.

These trees can be identified by their coniferous needles and dimorphic shoots which bear singular buds within clusters of needles. However, larches are also deciduous, meaning that they lose their needles in the fall, which is rare for coniferous trees.

North American larches are typically observed as either tamarack or western larch and can be found in many parts of North America's lush deciduous forests. Other conifers include bald cypress, cedar, Douglas-fir, hemlock, pine, redwood, and spruce.

How to Identify Larches

Golden yellow subalpine Larches in the autumn.

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Most common larches in North America can be identified by their coniferous needles and single cone per shoot of needle clusters, but also by the larches' deciduous quality wherein they lose these needles and cones in the autumn, unlike most evergreen conifers.

The female cones are uniquely green or purple but ripen to brown five to eight months after pollination, however, northern and southern larches differ in cone size — those in colder northern climates have small cones while those in southern climates tend to have much longer cones.

These differing cone sizes use to taxonomize this species into two sections — the Larix for the shorter and Multiserialis for the long bracts, but recent genetic evidence discovered suggests these traits are merely adaptations to climate conditions.

Other Conifers and Distinctions

Close up of green needles on a Larch tree.

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Larches aren't the most common conifers in North America, cedars, firs, pines, and spruces — which also all happen to be evergreen — are much more common throughout Canada and the United States due to their ability to survive in harsher and warmer climates.

These species also differ from larches in the way their shoots, cones, and needles are shaped and grouped. Cedar trees, for instance, have much longer needles and often bear cones in clusters with shoots containing multiple clusters. Firs, on the other hand, have much thinner needles and also bear one cone per shoot.

Bald cypres, hemlock, pine, and spruce are also included in the same family of coniferous plants, each of which is also evergreen — with only a few exceptions in the redwood family, which only contains a few larch-like genus.