Thursday, 21. February 2013

Tree of the Year 2012: The European Larch

For thousands of years it has bared loneliness and cold – in wintertime even without a "dress". It is famous for its resisting power and the curing effect of its juice: But who is this Lady amongst the pinewood?

"Blessed is the man who loves trees, particularly those, which are large, free and grow wild in the place, where the infinite power has planted them and are independent from any human care."

Prentice Mulford

Like the European larch: a tree, which is naturally occurring primarily in the deserted heights of the Alps and Carpathians. There, in up to 2900 m, it can withstand severe frosts of down to -40° F, its trunk can reach over three meter in diameter and it is as-sumed that some specimens in Swiss Valais and Val d'Ultimo / South Tyrol are more than 2000 years old.

The very light–requiring larch set off for this barren region, when after the last ice age 10000 years ago, the reforestation not only brought competitors of the same order of conifers, like the Scots pine, on to the scene, but also the much more shade-tolerant deciduous trees. One could play on word and say, that this struggle had hardened it: its wood is – apart from that of the Yew tree – the hardest among European conifers. The resin content is even higher than that of pinewood and makes the European larch strongly resistant against pests, water- and weather effects and a considerable strength against snow- and storm damage.

Of course these properties make it a very interesting tree for man's use, which is why he planted this larch throughout Europe. While its population in Austria amounts to 26% of the forest area, in Germany only 1% of the forests are wooded by it – which surely is a reason for being especially valued round here. The sapwood, that young, soft outer layer of a trunk, whose living cells conduct and store water, is in this case no wider than 3 inches and therefore unusually narrow. Consequently, the proportion of the red-brown, tough and durable heartwood is very high and makes it suitable especially for its exterior use even in water the area.

In the "Wooden Age" the wood of the European larch was used to produce masts, roof shingles, barrels and railway sleepers. The same epoch, when its bark extracts were processed in tannery and the "Venetian turpentine" was obtained from its resin, which still today is a coveted ingredient for ointments. Even without impregnation or other protective coating the wood processed in front doors, balustrades, exteriors, patio furniture and bridges lasts watertight longer than any other indigenous wood.

And in the Alps, the old people tell the kids a tale, which says that the good forest fairy appreciates the larch: she lives deep inside it and holds her protective hand over the cottage nearby, saves it from lightning strikes and is fighting against fauns, trolls and gnomes, who all of them live in the dark firs and pines of the mountains.

Finally now the most curious feature of the title winner 2012: the European larch is – as the only European conifer – deciduous. That means, it looses its approximately 1.5 inches long, soft needles between October and November. But not before depriving them of chlorophyll and other nutrient in terms of supplying the trunk with "food" for winter. In brief, as the foliage of deciduous trees, the needles turn golden yellow and fall off eventually. And then in March or April, as one of the first signs of spring, its female pink and sulphur-yellow inflorescences hang and stand on the shortly after light-green "needled" branches. Its pollen is carried away by good winds in whole little clouds, while the female inflorescences grow into light-brown cones with an average length of one inch until fall and then out of them the winged seeds fall. A hoary cone stud is left, growing old with the tree and not falling off before five to ten years and not without the branch it has been growing on.