Larch

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Last weekend’s fall weather has certainly set leaf drop into motion for the year.  I noticed some of the early droppers stating to thin their canopy as many of the walnut around our property are already yellowing and loosing leaves.  Cottonwoods are half bare, dropping more leaves each time the wind blows.  One particular group of trees always draws my interest this time of year as I wait for their fall display - the deciduous conifers.

These coniferous, leaf dropping trees are a bit of an oddity in the plantscapes of central IL.  Most needle bearing trees that grow in our area are evergreen, meaning they retain their needles all year long.  Whereas these conifers gracefully senesce to their respective fall color and drop their needles prior to winter. 

Last fall, I wrote a column about deciduous conifers in our area since this subset of trees is always on my mind during the fall season.  Every year, I make it a point to try and take in as much of their fall color as I can during the brief few weeks they perform their annual transition to bare branches.   One reader was particularly responsive to that week’s column and kindly replied that I had an overly harsh review of one of his favorite needle dropping conifers. 

Mike Weber, of Champaign, contacted me last fall to point out that there are an assortment of ornamental larch, or tamarack, varieties that do quite well in our area despite my comments to the contrary.  In my review last fall, I had noted that eastern larch (Larix laricina), which is native to northern Illinois, was “barely hardy” in our area.  Mike has certainly changed my opinion of larch by pointing out the many ornamental varieties that do well in central Illinois.

“Once they get rooted, larches are very tolerant of wide range of moisture, soil and environmental conditions, “commented Weber.  “At last count, I have 14 different Tamarac cultivars ranging from full size to dwarf.” 

Weber is a 1971 graduate of the University of Illinois, majoring in Agricultural Sciences. Together with his wife Susan, the Weber’s have a lifetime of gardening experience that has resulted in a spectacular landscape surrounding their home in Champaign.  In recent years, they have expanded their collection of ornamental woody plants to include over 200 different varieties, making their property somewhat of a mini “arboretum”. 

Beyond the Weber’s collection of woody plants lies an amazing assortment of rare and interesting landscaping, hosting several hundred more varieties of ornamentals.  These wonderful gardens will be featured in the 2019 Champaign County Master Gardener’s Garden Walk, where they will be open for public viewing and the Weber’s will be on hand to answer any questions or provide recommendations.

Mike was kind enough to share some of his experience with larch trees over the years.  He notes that the establishment period for larch trees is particularly challenging.

“Larch must never be allowed to dry out in its first year of planting,” notes Weber.  Consistent soil moisture during the first few years of establishment has been Mike’s key to success.  However, once these plants establish their root system, they have proven to be quite hardy in central Illinois. 

“Larches can thrive in Champaign and are not in any way affected by the heat once established and watered well the first year of planting. They indeed have spectacular gold fall color and very nice, soft leaflets. “

Although some cultivars exist from the North American larch species, eastern larch (Larix laricina) and western larch (Larix occidentalis), there are far more available from their Asian and European cousins, European larch (Larix decidua) and Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi).  All of these trees have a wonderful fall display of golden yellow, but the many cultivated varieties offer other ornamental interest. From beautiful blue-green needles and sometimes corkscrewed twigs, to interesting growth forms, such as dwarf or weeping habits, larch cultivars offer something for everyone.  However, many of these larches are difficult to find, making it especially intriguing and exciting to actually find these plants and add them to your home collection. 

Special thanks to Mike and Susan Weber for host a tour of their “arboretum”.  It’s always wonderful to connect with gardeners of similar interests.