In the Garden: “Evergreen” Trees

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Golden larch just past its color peak

At winter’s onset, our ancestors brought evergreen boughs into their homes to remind them that light and warmth would eventually return to their worlds. The tradition of putting a decorated tree in homes may have originated in 16th century Germany, and now is universally embraced in the United States and much of Europe.

Christmas trees were at first cut from the wild. Rural residents would have used trees growing on their property; in Virginia, pines and cedars were popular choices. Now, most trees sold in the Southeast are grown on farms in the southern Blue Ridge; Fraser Fir is the top choice for good color and fragrance. (And, of course, Arboris plasticus remains a perennial choice for its longevity.) Among the conifers commonly used for Christmas trees now and in the recent past, the larch (genus Larix) is conspicuously absent. Why is that?

As cold-adapted trees, the seven or eight larch species encircle the globe at higher latitudes, as well as at the upper altitudes, of the northern hemisphere. The Dahurian larch (Larix gmelinii), native to eastern Siberia, is the most northerly-growing tree species on earth, reaching well above the Arctic Circle. In North America, two species occur in the northwestern U.S. and adjacent Canada. The western larch (L. occidentalis) grows to nearly 200 feet tall; the subalpine larch (L. lyallii) is found at higher elevations and is much shorter, especially when growing near the tree line.

Closer to home is the Tamarack or American larch, Larix laricina, growing from Labrador and Newfoundland westward across all of Canada, with a disjunct population in Alaska. It also extends well to the south—by larch standards, at least—to the higher elevations of far western Maryland and adjacent West Virginia.

All the larches are attractive trees. The short needles, only about two inches long, are often held in starburst clusters on short twigs. Foliage on the American larch is a bright blue-green, and the needles on all larch species turn a golden yellow before dropping in the fall to reveal a bare skeleton.  What? Dropping needles?! That explains why larches are not used as Christmas trees. Unless you’re going for the Charlie Brown look, that is.  

Aside from their (low) value as Christmas trees, will larches add something to your landscape? Most larches would not be happy with Virginia summers, although the Japanese larch (L. kaempferi) would have a decent chance. Normally a large tree, a few compact cultivars are available, such as ‘Blue Dwarf’ and ‘Nana’.

More heat tolerant than the true larches, the Golden Larch (Pseudolarix amabilis) has a very similar appearance. It previously bore the name Pseudolarix kaempferi, making it easy to confuse with Larix kaempferi. Caveat emptor. You may have to seek out a specialty nursery or shop online to find either any of the true larches, or the Golden Larch.

For any of these species full sun is best, but in a situation protected from strong winds. Placing them south of an evergreen windbreak would show them to best advantage. Moderate water, good drainage and acid soil are ideal. 

Admittedly, the larches are not going to work well as indoor Christmas trees. But as a tree growing in your yard, the deciduous habit would make it easier to hang ornaments. No prickly needles to deal with.

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A few thoughts on gardening and yard work in the winter: Unless it’s crazy cold, this can be a good time to work outside. No dripping sweat or biting insects. To make things tolerable, you will have to forgo The Great American Uniform: ball cap, T-shirt and shorts.

I’m fond of fleece-lined pants, either jeans or duck fabric. If you’re wading into nasty briars and such, consider pants with a reinforced front. L.L. Bean and Duluth Trading carry many pants that are either lined or offer some type of abrasion-resistance. DT has work pants with built-in pockets for knee pads, good not only for hard surfaces, but for cold, wet ground as well. A kneeling pad also works if you don’t mind moving it around as you work.

On top, I prefer some type of long-sleeved undershirt, but I avoid cotton. If you’re very active, it will become cold and clammy. Fleece vests are good for warmth and adjustability. I prefer not to have either fleece or down garments as my outer layer, however. Fleece seems to be a magnet for plant debris, and I’m always afraid that some branch or thorn will poke a hole in the nylon shell over the down. A tough cotton layer is better at standing up to abuse.

Don’t forget a warm hat like a beanie or a stocking hat. If it’s cold enough that I feel the need for something like a balaclava to keep me warm, it might be time to go inside. Such extreme measures are reserved either for hunters in deer stands or for somebody who’s being paid to work outside, not home gardeners.

Please stay safe, and enjoy your holiday season! 

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