October 20, 2020

Golden Larch Magic

Written by
Golden Larch Magic U.S. Forest Service

As you take your fall season drive looking for the brilliant changing colors in Utah's mountains the sight of the western larch (Larix occidentalis) and subalpine larch (Larix lyallii) are some of the most unique and bright trees you'll encounter and they have no leaves! Larch trees are conifers that are deciduous. That means that they have needles like an evergreen tree, but those needles turn bright gold and drop every fall just like a deciduous tree.

Mid-October in Utah is the best time of year to see the larches in their full color. The bright glow of the golden larch is the season’s last light as fall color fades to snowy white and the long lull of winter envelops the park. The larch is a secret magician, quietly blending in with the evergreens. But wait a few months into fall and the larch commands the landscape stage, its golden glow blazing then needles drop and leaving branches twig bare. Very desirable tree with beautiful bark and spectacular color changes in fall.

A little history research produced a fascinating find on the Western Larch in Utah, an excerpt from the U.S. Forest Service Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest:

"In 1907, The Salt Lake Herald reported that seeds of Western Larch were sown at the Wasatch Nursery. In 1912, the Herald reported that the Wasatch National Forest received a 2-ounce package of “high toned and aristocratic” Siberian larch seeds from the estate of Count Max von Sivers of Roemershof, Russia to be planted at the nursery. In 1913, the Herald reported that Count von Siver’s European larch seeds had sprouted, were to be planted that summer, and were the first larch trees in Utah. The Forest Service has not verified which larch species have taken root in Big Cottonwood Canyon as the agency was also collecting western larch seeds during this period.

In addition to the two small stands planted at Spruces Campground, a few more larch trees planted by the nursery workers have been spotted in Big Cottonwood Canyon. When the golden aspen leaves have fallen in Big Cottonwood Canyon, two stands of yellow/orange larch trees become prominent in late October on the north-facing slope adjacent to Spruces Campground. Spruces Campground was the former site of the Wasatch Nursery, which operated from 1906-1920 to grow seedlings to be planted on the newly created Salt Lake Forest Reserve in an effort to reforest the city watershed which had been impacted by logging, grazing, and mining. The nursery was charged with conducting “urgent forestry experiments” to determine which tree species could grow in the canyons. These larch stands are a remnant of the Wasatch Nursery, having survived over 100 years. Larch are one of the few conifer species that shed their needles in late autumn. These are the only known larch on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest."

To review; several species of larch are native to the northern U.S. but others were introduced from Europe. Larches are large and tall trees that reach 50-80 feet. This evergreen has deciduous needles that are up to 1 1/4 inch long. Larch needles are light green in color most of the year which then turn yellow in autumn before shedding. Cones are up to 1 1/2 inches long, egg-shaped and stalkless. Fun historical fact, Native Americans once tied the slender roots of Larch trees together to use as strips of bark for their canoes. More information on Utah conifers can be found here

We hope you enjoy this fall season driving, hiking and wandering adventures, and don't forget to look for the bright colors of the conifers too!