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Into the green

Dirt riders often cite the quiet and beautiful nature of the forest as one reason they love to mountain bike. On singletrack, we get to trade the cacophonic pang of contemporary urban life for the scent of dirt and sap. Many of us find meditation in the pedal strokes, spooky cliffs, hanging on, pushing deep, and playing young, which leaves no space to be anything other than present.

The natural world that curates those experiences is something I enjoy learning about between rides, as it deepens my appreciation for and connection to my favorite things. I want to share some of my lay-research here, with the hope it will inspire readers to learn more about the natural world that lines our singletrack trails. I will start with a fall favorite, found atop mountains in the northern hemisphere.

Larch (Genus: Larix)

September trails grow louder, carpeted by brittle leaves. Many forests in the northern hemisphere turn at the beginning of autumn as deciduous trees (leaf-shedding) show the world where they stand.

Larch is one of only six coniferous trees that drop their leaves in autumn to grow anew each spring. In total, fifteen tree species are huddled under the Larch banner. Each of these species shares the definitive characteristics of 30-40 tightly clumped leaves/needles that light up vividly green in spring, but disappear in autumn, leaving the Larch naked through the winter months.

Habitat

Due to their tolerance for a diversity of soils and propensity for cooler, temperate climates, Larch is among the most northern growing species of trees, covering the northern forests of Europe, Siberia, China, North America, and Japan. They are rarely found in pure stands, more typically growing among a natural variety of trees including pines, hemlock, and cedar, though the variation of their neighbors depends greatly on geographic location. Growth altitudes range from 500-1,700 meters, where the trees can be found on mountain slopes and scattered throughout valleys.

Western Larch, in particular, is highly fire-resistant, protecting its cambium layer with the same basil bark that allows it to endure winter temperatures down to -57°C.

Thick bark helps shield the tree from the cold winter environment of its natural habitat.

Animal and human uses

Immature cones and buds provide an important source of food for squirrels, rabbits, and birds. Alongside colonies of insects and bacteria, these same animals make their nests in Larch trees.

Native cultures around the world have used parts of the tree for construction, medicine, and ritualistic practices for centuries. The name of the Tamarack species, also known as Eastern or American Larch, comes from an Algonquin word, akemantak, meaning “wood used for snowshoes.”

In addition to snowshoe production, the wood from Larch trees is both hard and strong, providing a fantastic building material for a variety of uses. The piles that hold the city of Venice, Italy above its saltwater base are made almost exclusively of Larch. Other contemporary manufacturing uses for Larch trunks include coffins, building materials, telephone poles, railroad ties, fences, furniture, and boats.

Though some larch specimens have been dated as far back as 1,000 years, a typical tree will live up to 250 years in the wild.

How to Identify a Larch

  • 30-40 needles emanate from short stems in a whirled-cluster needle pattern, alternately bunched along the branch
  • Needles 2-5cm long, under 1cm wide
  • Short, multilayered cones, red to dark brown depending on cone age, egg or oval shaped
  • Twisting habit
  • Deciduous
  • Identification video

This light green stand of trees in the foreground are European Larch

Vignette

A dear friend of mine, who owns a wildland firefighting company in southern Oregon, once asked me if I could identify the Larch in his backyard. He had just moved into a new home and wanted to know more about the tree including when the needles would fall into the swimming pool below. I took a quick look at the towering tree and then busted out a species guide to share some tips on how to identify trees because this was no Larch, but a massive Atlas Cedar. The takeaway: even folks who work in nature can learn more about the flora that surrounds us.

Are there trees in your area that you find particularly interesting, or would like to learn more about? Please share any intriguing information or stories about your local flora or fauna in the comments below.

Note: Information in this article was collected from various sources including arborday.org, for.gov.bc.ca, and fs.fed.us.

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# Comments

  • mongwolf

    Hi Brian, I was thrilled to see your article on my favorite northern tree and one of my top three favorite trees of the world. Great write up. For me, my acquaintance is primarily with the specific species of Larix Sibirica or Siberian larch which dominates the mountain slopes of Mongolia. Entire mountain slopes, mile after mile in length, will be a stunning yellow at the peak of the fall and later a beautiful burnt orange as the needles proceed through their fall color change. In the winter the snow white steppe adjoining to the rustic brown needle-less larch forest set in by the perfectly deep blue Mongolian skies make for a breathtaking rugged beauty. Then in the spring (actually mid-May) the larch needles flush out in brilliant green that again lights up the landscape at large, but the seedlings and saplings especially have a charm up close that will stop you dead in your tracks no matter how good the riding may be. And there may be no more pristine experience in biking than rolling along narrow singletrack covered by a layer of burnt orange larch needles. Yes, larch trees and larch forests are worthy of the attention you have given them and far more. Also just as an aside and to add to very interesting information you provided about larch, you stated that the elevation range of larch is 500-1700m. I personally have commonly stood beside larch trees at elevations of 7000 and as high as ~10,000′ (up to 3000m) in Mongolia.

    • Brian Gerow

      @mongwolf, Thank you for adding info and stoke to the piece! The trails in Mongolia sound amazing!
      I hope to write more articles like this if readers are interested, keeping with a seasonal theme as much as possible. I will try to select species that exist on most continents, as our readers live and ride all around the world.

      I think a close look at the European/American Chestnut could be appropriate for the next one, with a vignette about the Chestnut blight that swept the east coast of the US in the early 1900s.

      What other cool plants would you like to read about?

  • mongwolf

    Also, the charming, dainty cone of larix is maybe only surpassed by the charm of the eastern hemlock cone.

    • mongwolf

      Quite the addition to the conversation there Brad. ????

    • mongwolf

      Opps my emoji didn’t work … oh well.

  • BBelfield

    Yes more articles like this! I enjoy dorking out over plants and trees and animals and anything in nature! Jeffry Pine tree is my “favorite” tree if I had to pick. Smells like vanilla.

    • mongwolf

      How about Coulter pines? Don’t forget your hardhat if you walking through a stand of Coulter pines. Dangerous things those Coulter pine cones.

  • mongwolf

    Yes Brian, most definitely do a post on the American chestnut. Everyone should learn about that tree and its historic importance to the US eastern hardwood forests and early US economy. And of course everyone should learn of its tragedy and the attempts to restore it to the eastern forests. My sister study dendrology with a professor who is part of the team developing the new resistant strands. If you have time Brian, maybe you could do a story about the American chestnut for Christmas this year. That would be very cool. By the way, I have also had the privilege to stand beside the Asian chestnut in South Korea. Wow, was that an experience. And once you are in the hills of South Korea, the forest feels very much like the Appalachian Mountains. It’s so similar, it kind of eerie. I had never stood by a fully mature chestnut tree before. Maybe someday our grandkids will have that privilege here in the US.

    Also as you may have gathered from my previous post, I love the eastern hemlock. I won’t go into it, but my affection for that tree dates back to my childhood. As BBelfield stated, we are really dorkin’ out here on trees. But hey, when I’m riding, I oftentimes interrupt my ride to look at the trees.

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