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The european larch

Larix decidua

The genus larch consists of only a few fast-growing, deciduous tree species that live in Northern Europe, North America and Asia.
European larch (Larix decidua) is the only native conifer in Europe that sheds its needles in the autumn. In the Alps, it is the principal tree species at high altitudes, where it could reach an age of more than a thousand years, if it were not felled before. The tree grows very tall and has almost horizontal branches. Its bark is grey-brown; in mature larches it turns brown with almost orange-coloured patches; it is very thick (around 15cm), rough and has wide fissures. The thick bark protects the tree from injuries caused, for example, by rocks rolling down a steep slope, or by a woodland fire burning in the undergrowth, as long as the flames do not reach the tree’s crown.
The european larch
 
The european larch

Species characteristics

Larch is easily recognizable by its needles, which actually make it unique. When they appear in the spring, they are bright green, soft to the touch and spirally set on new growth. On older shoots and twigs, whorled needles in bundles of 30 or 40 grow on spurs. With the first cold period in the autumn, the needles take on a beautiful yellow-golden colour. The change takes place within a few days, beginning at the top of the crown, which develops something like a golden cap. Some time later, the needles become brown and then drop.
In the spring, the female cones are erect and of a conspicuous rosy-red colour; they ripen into a brown, ovoid cone of 2-3.5cm length.
The very durable larch timber, which is of a lovely reddish-brown colour, is used in the building trade to cover the outside of houses or haybarns and to make the traditional larch-wood roof shingles. In the past, tannin was extracted from larch bark and used for tanning leather, whereas turpentine was obtained from the tree’s resin and used for medicinal purposes. In the Alpine area, the resin was traditionally spread on injuries, in order to eliminate impurities and avoid infection.
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