Larix decidua, first described in 1768 by Philip Miller (1691–1771), is commonly known as European larch as well as Mélèze d’Europe in the French language; as larice comune in Italian; Gemeine Lärche, or Europäische Lärche in German; as Modřín opadavý in Czech; as Smrekovec opadavý in Slovakian; as Modrzew europejski in Polish; and as Модрина європейська in Ukrainian. It was originally called Pinus decidua (“the deciduous pine”) when many genera were lumped loosely as variations with in Pinus. (In New Zealand, L. decidua is classed as a “wilding conifer,” an invasive species which spreads into the high country; it was planted by the New Zealand Forest Service for erosion control.)
There are three recognized specific varieties, distinguish primarily by differences in seed cones:
- Larix decidua var. decidua — the European larch or Alpine larch. Most of the range, except as below. Seed cones grow from 1 to 2.4 inches (2.5 – 6 cm) long and 0.6 to 1.2 inches (1.5 to 3 cm) wide, with rounded seed scales and a notched upper margin. Shoots are yellow-buff in color.
- Larix decidua var. carpatica — the Carpathian larch. Native to the Carpathian mountains of eastern Europe. Seed cones are 1.6 to 2.4 inches (4 – 6 cm) long and 1 to 1.4 inches (2.5 – 3.5 cm) wide with seed scales bearing an entire upper margin.
- Larix decidua var. polonica — the Polish larch. Disjunct in lowland northern Poland at the headwaters of river Vistula. Cones 0.6 inch (1.5 cm) long and 0.48 inch (1.2 cm) broad with entire upper margins; shoots very pale yellow-buff, almost white.
Description. European larch is a medium-size to large deciduous coniferous tree reaching 75 to 135 feet (25 – 45 m) tall, with a trunk up to 3 feet (1 m) in diameter measured at breast height. Exceptional specimens grow to 165 feet (55 m) tall and 6 feet (2 m) in diameter. The crown is conic when young, becoming broad with age; the main branches are level to upswept, with the side branches often pendulous.
- Shoots are dimorphic, with growth divided into long shoots, typically 4 to 18 inches (10 – 50 cm) long, bearing several buds, and short shoots only 0.04 to 0.08 inch (1 – 2 mm) long with only a single bud.
- Leaves are needle-like, light green, 0.8 to 1.6 inches (2 – 4 cm) long that turn bright yellow before being shed in the autumn, leaving the pale, yellow-buff shoots bare until the next spring.
- Seed cones are erect, ovoid-conic in shape, 0.8 to 2.4 inches (2 – 6 cm) long, with 10 to 90 erect or slightly incurved (not reflexed) seed scales; they are green, variably flushed red when immature, turning brown and opening to release the seeds when mature, 4 to 6 months after pollination. The old cones commonly remain on the tree for many years, turning dull grey-black.
Distribution. This species is native to the mountains of central Europe, in the Alps and Carpathian Mountains, with disjunct lowland populations in northern Poland and southern Lithuania. It is cultivated as an ornamental tree for planting in gardens and parks. It is very cold tolerant, able to survive winter temperatures down to at least -58ºF (-50°C), and is among the tree line trees in the Alps, reaching 7,000 feet (2,400 m) in elevation above sea level, though most abundant between 3,000 and 6,000 feet (1,000 – 2,000 m). It only grows on well-drained soils, avoiding waterlogged ground.
The wood is tough and durable, but also flexible in thin strips, and is particularly valued for yacht building; wood used for this must be free of knots, and can only be obtained from old trees that were pruned when young to remove side branches.