Thursday, January 19, 2012

ACBS’s Project Tree of the Year: The American Larch or Tamarack

Collected larch 100+ years
ACBS June show
First a personal note about this species.  (Feel free to skip down to the second paragraph, if you like.)  The larch--tamarack-- is probably my favorite species. It is the best of all worlds. They don’t seem to be bothered much by insect pests; their trunks form terrific shapes and textures, and their branches layer out nicely.  While it is a cone bearing tree, its soft needles turn yellow to gold in the fall, giving it a fine, almost soft-looking fall color (see photos). Its spring colors, though, are my favorite. The vibrant green foliage has such a fresh shade of green that it just makes you happy to look at it. It is the green of light coming through the canopy when translucent leafs light up like church glass. It is also a green like wet moss, ferns and lichens. There is no question in my mind that sunlight on this brilliant, spring, tamarack-green strums some primordial chord. It recalls a time when people were more connected with the forest. In short, it is the green of some ancestral home, a green of tranquility. I cannot say enough about this emotional connection it makes for me with the way its color reacts with the sunlight. Working with them, their spring color slips your eyes into a wide open vision, and open mind. I just love them. For bonsai, they are well worth the time and effort.

The larch is a deciduous conifer-- that is a cone bearing tree, but drops all its foliage in the fall.  The American larch or tamarack  (larix laricina) is described in Wikipedia as:  

a species of larch native to Canada, from eastern Yukon … to Newfoundland, and also south into the northeastern United States from Minnesota to .. West Virginia…The name Tamarack is the Algonquian name for the species and means “wood used for snowshoes.”

Grown in open ground for several years
In the fall, you can easily spot them from a distance because of their particular shade of yellow. Last November while driving on I-80, I saw a couple of groves of them in their full color on a steep hill side in eastern Pennsylvania. I was disappointed that I couldn't get to my camera in time for a picture.

Larch grove in fall and summer
A larch’s spruce-like outline allows it to work well for most style of bonsai (except broom-style).  They make excellent formal or informal upright, literati, cascades or group plantings.  The photographs show several examples.  The top photos show a 100+ year old collected larch, on the left is a group planting in fall and summer, and on the right is a developing bonsai about a 15 years old, that was grown in the open ground for several seasons to help thicken its trunk. During that time, the trunk was pruned several times to create a gently curving trunk. It was put in a training pot about 2 years ago. 

Part of the club’s plan for this tree is to order many seedlings.  The seedlings can be made into neat forest plantings.  Members can also plant seedlings individually in pot for a few seasons, prune them for use as individual bonsai or group plantings.  Members may also want to plant some in the open ground to allow them to add some girth, if they are going to be used as individual bonsai. You can do some preliminary pruning to work on the trunk shape while it is in the ground, but these will be more like five year projects.  Ken may have some larch for sale that he has been developing in pots for the past several years, and one of these trees may be a good choice for some. 

Larch's natural growth habit forms a spruce-like outline
You can see the larch's natural growth habit, forming a spruce-like outline in the photo below (with my daughter and me).  It is useful to understand this growth habit/shape if you are making a group or forest planning.  As new shoots form on your forest planting, you may want to wire them in a more downward direction so your group planting will more closely resemble the shape in the photograph.

For winter care, trees can be healed into the ground in an area where it has some protection from the wind (I like areas around the house in between shrubbery). Then cover the pot with a layer of mulch or straw.  As the larch is winter hardy, it will do just fine. 
Mature larch in a park in Stow

As with out black pine project last year, we'll be taking some photos, so we can keep a record of how our projects progress.   Don't be afraid to try both a group planting--even a three tree one can be attractive--and also try a few in nursery pots to prune and develop as individual bonsai.  Working with several will help you to become familiar with how to care for them. Below you can see the kind of planting that can be attained with larches.  This ambitious project that Gib created at an ACBS workshop a few years ago speaks for itself.  With a little work, and time, you won't be disappointed. 
Two views of Gib's larch forest  --created at an ACBS workshop
After three seasons 


  1. Just purchased a small proud of 5 seedlings. Excited about the capabilities!

  2. I'm from Carrollton,Ohio...looking into adding a collected larch to my bench. Love seeing it does well in Ohio. That has been a contender with a few on a forum. It was just collected in the fall of last year. So will have it shipped this coming fall...was told not to ship during the summer. And the one who has it...prefers to see th health of it before shipping it out.