1902 Encyclopedia > Larch


LARCH (from the German Lerche ; Latin, larix), a name applied to a small group of coniferous trees, of which the common larch of Europe is taken as the type. The members of the genus Larix are distinguished from the firs, with which they were formerly placed, by their deciduous leaves, scattered singly, as in "Wes, on the young shoots of the season, but on all older branchlets growing in whorl-like tufts, each surrounding the extremity of a rudimentary or abortive branch ; from cedars (Cedrus) they differ, not only in the deciduous leaves, but in the cones, the scales of which are thinner towards the apex, and are persistent, remaining attached long after the seeds are discharged. The trees of the genus are closely allied in botanic features, as well as in general appearance, so that it is sometimes difficult to assign to them determinate specific characters, and the limit between species and variety is not always very accurately defined. Nearly all are natives of Europe, or the northern plains and mountain ranges of Asia and North America, though one occurs only on the Himalaya ; a somewhat aberrant form, usually placed in a separate sub-genus, is peculiar to north China and Japan.

The common larch (L. europxa) is, when grown in perfection, a stately tree with tall erect trunk, gradually tapering from root to summit, and horizontal branches LARCH springing at irregular intervals from the stem, and in old trees often becoming more or less drooping, but rising again towards the extremities ; the branchlets or side shoots, very slender and pendulous, are pretty thickly studded with the whorls of narrow linear leaves, of a peculiar bright light green when they first appear in the spring, but becoming of a deeper hue when mature. The yellow stamen-bearing flowers are in sessile, nearly spherical catkins ; the fertile ones vary in colour, from red or purple to greenish-white, in different varieties ; the erect cones, which remain long on the branches, are above an inch in length and oblong-ovate in shape, with reddish-brown scales somewhat waved on the edges, the lower bracts usually rather longer than the scales. The tree flowers in April or May, and the winged seeds are shed the following autumn. When standing in an open space, uncrowded by neighbouring trees, the larch grows of a nearly conical shape, with the lower branches almost reaching the ground, while those above gradually diminish in length towards the top of the trunk, presenting a very symmetrical form ; but in dense woods the lower parts become bare of foliage, as with the firs under similar circumstances. When springing up among rocks or on ledges, the stem sometimes becomes much curved, and, with its spreading boughs and pendent branch-lets, often forms a striking and picturesque object in the alpine passes and steep ravines in which the tree delights to grow. In the prevalent European varieties the bark is reddish-grey, and rather rough and scarred in old trees, which are often much lichen-covered. The trunk attains a height of from 80 to 140 feet, with a diameter of from 3 to 5 feet near the ground, but in close woods is comparatively slender in proportion to its altitude. The larch abounds on the Alps of Switzerland, on which it flourishes at an elevation of 5000 feet, and also on those of Tyrol and Savoy, on the Carpathians, and in most of the hill regions of central Europe ; it is likewise found on parts of the Apennine chain, but is not indigenous to the Pyrenees, and in the wild state is unknown in the Spanish peninsula. It forms extensive woods in Russia, but does not extend its range to the Scandinavian countries, where its absence is somewhat remarkable, as the tree grows freely in Norway and Sweden where planted, and even multiplies itself by self-sown seed, according to Schiiheler, in the neighbourhood of Trondbjem. In the north-eastern parts of Russia, in the country towards the Petchora river, and on the Ural, a peculiar variety prevails, regarded by some as a distinct species (L. sibirita); this form is abundant nearly throughout Siberia, extending to the Pacific coast of Kamchatka and the hills of Dahuria. The Siberian larch has smooth grey bark and smaller cones, approaching in shape somewhat to those of the American hackmatack ; it seems even hardier than the Alpine tree, growing up to latitude 68°, but, as the inclement climate of the polar shores is neared, dwindling down to the form of a dwarf and even trailing bush ; on the Altai, however, Pallas states that it flourishes only at medium elevations.

The larch, from its lofty straight trunk and the high quality of its wood, must be regarded as one of the most important of coniferous trees ; its growth is extremely rapid, the stem attaining a large site in from sixty to eighty years, while the tree yields good useful timber at forty or fifty ; it forms firm heartwood at an early age, and the sapwood is less perishable than that of the firs, rendering it more valuable in the young state.

The wood of large trees is close and compact in texture, in the best varieties of a deep reddish colour varying to brownish-yellow, but apt to be lighter in tint, and less hard in grain, when grown in rich soils or in low sheltered situations. It is remarkably tough, resisting a rending strain better than any of the fir or pine woods in common use, though not as elastic as some ; properly seasoned, it is as little liable to shrink as to split ; the boughs being small compared to the trunk, the timber is more free from large knots, and the small knots remain firm and undecayed. The only drawback to these good qualities is a certain liability to warp and bend, unless very carefully seasoned ; for this purpose it is recommended to be left floating in water for a year after felling, and then allowed seine months to dry slowly and completely before sawing up the logs ; barking the trunk in winter while the tree is standing, and leaving it in that state till the next year, has been often advised with the larch as with other timber, but the practical inconveniences of the plan have prevented its adoption on any large scale. When well prepared for use, larch is one of the most durable of coniferous woods. Its strength and toughness render it valuable for naval pm-poses, to which it is largely applied ; its freedom from any tendency to split adapts it for clinker-built boats, for the construction of which a high authority, Matthew, pronounces it the best of all woods. It is much employed for house building in all countries where it grows in abundance ; most of the picturesque log-houses in Vaud and the adjacent cantons arc built of squared larch trunks, and derive their fine brown tint from the hardened resin that slowly exudes from the wood after long exposure to the summer sun ; the wooden shingles, that in Switzerland supply the place of tiles, are also frequently of larch. In Germany it is much used by the cooper as well as the carpenter, durable staves for casks being made of this valuable wood, while the form of the trunk admirably adapts it for all purposes for which long straight timber is needed. It is one of the most durable of woods in wet ground or under water, and answers well for fence-posts and river piles ; many of the foundations of old Venice rest upon larch, the lasting qualities of which were well known and appreciated, not only in mediaeval times, but in the far-off days of Vrtruvins and Pliny. The harder and darker varieties are valuable to the cabinetmaker in the construction of cheap solid furniture, being fine in grain and taking polish better than many more costly woods. A peculiarity of larch wood is the difficulty with which it is ignited, although so resinous, a quality that gives it still higher value to the builder ; for, though not quite so incombustible as the Romans deemed it, large pieces do not as easily take fire as the ordinary kinds of deal timber ; and, coated with a thin layer of plaster, beams and pillars of larch might probably be found to justify etcsar's epithet "igni impenetrabile lignum" ; even the small branches are not easily kept alight, and a larch fire in the open needs considerable care. It the forests of larch in Siberia often stiffer from conflagration. When these fires occur while the trees are full of sap, a curious mucilaginous matter is exuded from the half-burnt stems ; when dry it is of a pale reddish colour, like some of the coarser kinds of gum-arabic, and is soluble in water, the solution resembling gum-water, in place of which it is sometimes used ; considerable. quantities arc collected and sold as "Orenburg gum " ; in Siberia and Russia it is occasionally employed as a semi-medicinal food, being esteemed an antiscorbutic. For burning in close stoves and furnaces, larch makes tolerably good fuel, its value being estimated by Hartig as only one-fifth less than that of beech ; the charcoal is compact, and is in demand for iron-smelting and other metallurgic uses in some parts of Europe.

In the trunk of the larch, especially when growing in climates where the sun is powerful in summer, a fine clear turpentine exists • in great abundance ; on the declivities of the Alps of Savoy and the south of Switzerland, it is collected by the peasants for sale, though not in such quantity as formerly, when, being taken to Venice for shipment, it was known in commerce as " Venice turpentine." Old trees are selected, from the bark of which it is observed to ooze in the early summer ; holes are bored in the trunk, somewhat inclined upward towards the centre of the stem, in which, between the layers of wood, the turpentine is said to collect in small Janine ; wooden glitters placed in these holes convey the viscous fluid into little wooden pails hung on the end of each gutter ; the secretion flows slowly all through the summer months, and the little tubs are emptied and replaced as they fill ; a tree in the proper condition yields from 6 to 8 lb a year, and will continue to give an annual supply for thirty or forty years, being, however, rendered quite useless for timber by subjection to this exhausting process, In Tyrol, whence a supply is also obtained, a single hole is made near the root of the tree in the spring ; this is stopped with a plug, and the turpentine is removed by a scoop in the autumn ; but each tree yields only from a few ounces to i lb by this process. Real larch turpentine is a thick tenacious fluid, of a deep yellow colour, and nearly transparent ; it does not harden by time ; it contains 15 per cent. of the essential oil of turpentine, also rosin, succinic, pinic, and sylvie acids, and a litter extractive matter. According to Pereira, much sold under the name of Venice turpentine is a mixture of common resin and oil of turpentine, and probably little of the real article now reaches England. On the French Alps a sweet exudation is found on the small branehlets of young larches in June and July, resembling manna in taste and laxative properties, and known as Manes de Brianc011 or Manna B•iy«ntina ; it occurs in small whitish irregular granular masses, which are removed in the morning before they are too inneli dried by the sun ; this manna seems to differ little in composition from the sap of the tree, which also contains mannite ; its cathartic powers are weaker than those of the manna of the mamma ash (Ornus), hut it is employed in France for the same purposes. The bark of the larch is largely used in some countries for tanning ; it is taken front the trunk only, being stripped from the trees when felled ; its value is about equal to that of birch bark ; but, according to th•experience of British tanners, it is scarcely half as strong as that of the oak. The soft inner bark is occasionally used in the wilds of Siberia as a ferment, by hunters and others, being boiled and mixed with rye-meal, and buried in the snow for a short time, when it is employed as a substitute for other leaven, and in making the sour liquor called " quass." In Germany a fungus (Polyporus larieis) grows on the roots and stems of decaying larches, which was formerly in esteem in England as a drastic purgative, but has given place to safer drugs, though it is still occasionally used by the Continental pharmacist. The young shoots of the larch arc sometimes given in Switzerland as fodder to cattle.

The larch, though mentioned by Parkinson in 1629 as "nursed up" by a few " lovers of variety" as a rare exotic, does not seem to have been much grown in England till early in the last century. In Scotland the date of its introduction is a disputed point, but it seems to have been planted at Dunkeld by the duke of Athole in 1727, and about thirteen or fourteen years later considerable plantations were made at that place, the commencement of one of the largest planting experiments on record ; it is estimated that 14 million larches were planted on the Athole estates between that date and 1S26. The cultivation of the tree rapidly spread, and the larch has long become a conspicuous feature of the scenery in many parts of Scotland. It grows as rapidly and attains as large a size in British habitats suited to it as in its home on the Alps, and often produces equally good timber, but has sometimes been planted under circumstances little adapted to its successful growth. The larch of Europe is essentially a mountain tree, and requires, not only free air above, but a certain moderate amount of moisture in the soil beneath, with, at the same time, perfect drainage, to bring the timber to perfect ion, - conditions often occurring on the mountain slope and rocky glen that form its natural habitats, but not always so readily provided in artificial culture. Complete freedom from stagnant water in the ground, and abundant room for the spread of its branches to light and air, are the most necessary requirements for the successful growth of larch, - the contrary conditions being the most frequent causes of failure in the cultivation of this valuable tree. Where these important needs are complied with, it will flourish in a great variety of soils, stiff clays, wet or mossy peat, and moist alluvium being the chief exceptions ; in its native localities it seems partial to the debris of primitive and metamorphic rocks, but is occasionally found growing luxuriantly on calcareous subsoils ; in Switzerland it attains the largest size, and forms the best timber, on the northern declivities of the mountains; but in Scotland a southern aspect appears most favourable. The best variety for culture in Britain is that with red female flowers ; the light-flowered kinds are said to produce inferior wood, and the Siberian larch does not grow in Scotland nearly as fast as the Alpine tree. The larch is raised from seed in immense numbers in British nurseries ; that obtained from Germany is preferred, being more perfectly ripened than the cones of home growth usually are. The seeds are sown in April, on rich ground, which should not be too highly manured ; the young larches are planted out when two years old, or sometimes transferred to a nursery bed to attain a larger size ; but, like all conifers, they succeed best when planted young ; on the mountains, the seedlings are usually put into a mere slit made in the ground by a spade with a triangular blade, the place being first cleared of any heath, bracken, or tall herbage that might smother the young tree ; the plants should be from 3 to 4 feet apart, or even more, according to the growth intended before thinning, which should be commenced as soon as the boughs begin to overspread much ; little Or no pruning is needed beyond the careful removal of dead branches. The larch is said not to succeed on arable land, especially where corn has been grown, but recent experience does not seem to support this prejudice ; that against the previous occupation of the ground by Scotch fir or Norway spruce is probably better founded, and, where timber is the object, it should not be planted with other conifers. On the Grampians and neighbouring hills the larch will flourish at a greater elevation than the pine, and will grow up to an altitude of 1700 or even 1S00 feet ; but it attains its full size on lower slopes. In very dry and bleak localities, the Scotch fir will probably be more successful up to 900 feet above the sea, the limit of the luxuriant growth of that hardy conifer in Britain ; and in moist valleys or on imperfectly drained acclivities Norway spruce is more suitable. The growth of the larch while young is exceedingly rapid ; in the south of England it will ' often attain a height of 25 feet in the first ten years, while in favourable localities it will grow upwards of 80 feet in half a century or less ; one at Dunkeld felled sixty years after planting was 110 feet high ; but usually the tree does not increase so rapidly after the first thirty or forty years. Larches now exist in Scotland that rival in size the most gigantic specimens standing in their native woods, a tree at Dalwick, Peeblesshire (said to have been planted in 1725), is 5 feet in diameter ; one at Glenarbuck, near the Clyde, is above 140 feet high, with a circumference of 13 feet. The annual increase in girth is often considerable even in large trees ; the fine larch near the abbey of Dunkeld figured by Strutt in his Sytea Britannica increased Vi feet between 1796 and 1825, its measurement at the latter date being 13 feet, with a height of Oil- feet..

In the south of England, the larch is much planted for the supply of hop-poles, and is considered one of the best woods for that purpose, the stems being straight and easily trimmed into poles, while they are extremely durable, though in parts of Kent and Sussex those formed of Spanish chestnut are regarded as still more lasting. In plantations made with this object, the seedlings are placed very close (from 1 to 2 feet apart), and either cut down all at once, when the required height is attained, or thinned out, leaving the remainder to gain a greater length ; the land is always well trenched before planting. The best season for larch planting, whether for poles or timber, is the mouth of November ; the operation is sometimes performed in the spring, but the practice cannot be commended, as the sap flows early, and, if a dry period follows, the growth is sure to be checked. The thinnings of the larch woods in the Highlands are in demand for railway sleepers, scaffold poles, and mining timber, and are applied to a variety of agricultural purposes. The tree generally succeeds on the Welsh hills, and might with advantage be planted on many of the drier mountains of Ireland, now mere barren moor-- land or poor unremunerative pasture.

I The European larch has long been introduced into the • United States, where, in suitable localities, it flourishes as luxuriantly as in Britain. Of late years some small plantations have been made in America with an economic view, the tree growing much faster, and producing good timber at an earlier age, than the native hackmatack, while the wood is less ponderous, and therefore more generally applicable.

The larch in Britain is occasionally subject to destructive casualties. The young seedlings are sometimes nibbled by the hare and rabbit ; and on parts of the Highland hills both bark and shoots are eaten in the winter by the roe-deer, which is a great enemy to young plantations ; larch woods should always be fenced in to keep out the hill-cattle, which will browse upon the shoots in spring. The "woolly aphis," "American blight," or "larch (Eriosomn- larids) often attacks the trees in close valleys, but rarely spreads much unless other unhealthy conditions are present. A far more formidable enemy is the disease known as the " heart-rot " ; it occurs in all the more advanced stages of growth, occasionally attacking young larches only ten years old or less, but is more common at a later period, when the trees have acquired a considerable size, sometimes spreading in a short time through a whole plantation. The trees for a considerable period show little sign of unhealthiness, but eventually the lower part of the stein near the root begins to swell somewhat, and the whole tree gradually goes off as the disease advances ; when cut down, the trunk is found to be decayed at the centre, the " rot " usually tommencing near the ground and gradually extending upwards. Trees of good size are thus rendered nearly worthless, often showing little sign of unhealthiness till felled. Great difference of opinion exists among foresters as to the cause of this destructive malady ; the manner in which it spreads would seem to indicate a fungoid origin, and the previous growth of pine on the ground is one of the most usual explanations offered. That some fungoid mycelium may be the remote cause of the disease seems not improbable ; but there is little doubt that any circumstance that tends to weaken the tree acts as a predisposing cause of the attack, and the best safeguards are probably perfect drainage, and early and sufficient thinning. On exposed hill-sides, and other well-drained breezy localities, the larch is little liable to failure from " rot " or any other cause. On arid subsoils, however, the tree will sometimes be injured in very dry seasons ; and such situations, though suitable for Scotch fir, are therefore badly adapted for larch.

Considerable quantities of larch timber are imported into Britain for use in the dockyards, in addition to the large home supply. The quality varies much, as well as the colour and density ; an Italian sample in the museum at Kew (of a very dark red tint) weighs about 24i lb to the cubic foot, while a Polish specimen, of equally deep line, is 44 It 1 oz. to the saine measurement.

For the purposes of the landscape gardener, whose chief aim is the picturesque, the larch is a valuable aid in the formation of park and pleasure ground. On steep hill-sides, the lofty aspiring stem and drooping branchlets add a pleasing feature to the prospect ; the light airy aspect of the tree adapts it as a contrast to the heavier masses of the pines and firs ; the bright, light-green foliage in the spring affords an agreeable variety, and nature presents few niece refreshing objects to the sight than a larch plantation bursting into young leaf ; in the late autumn, the pale yellow of the changing foliage stands out in strong relief to the sombre tones of the evergreen conifers, or the deep red-brown of the beech ; but in park or plantation the larch is never seen to such advantage as when hanging over souse tumbling burn or rocky pass among the mountains. A variety with very pendent boughs, known as the " drooping" larch, is occasionally met with in gardens.

The bark of the larch has lately been introduced into pharmacy, being given, generally in the form of an alcoholic tincture, in chronic bronchitis affections and internal Inemorrhages. It contains, in addition to tannin, a peculiar principle called larixin, which may be obtained in a pure state by distillation from a concentrated infusion of the bark ; it is a colourless substance in long crystals, with a bitter and astringent taste, and a faint acid reaction; hence some term it larixinie acid.

The genus is represented in the eastern parts of North America by the hackmatack (L. americana), of which there are several varieties, two so \yell-marked that they are by some botanists considered specifically- distinct. In one (L. microcarpa) the cones are very small, rarely exceeding inch iu length, of a roundish-oblong shape ; the scales are very few in number, crimson in the young state, reddish-brown when ripe ; the tree much resembles the European larch in general appearance, but is of more slender growth ; its trunk is seldom more than 2 feet in diameter, and rarely above 80 feet high ; this form is the red larch, the epinettc rouge of the French Canadians. The black larch (L. pcndula) has rather larger cones, of an oblong shape, about 7, inch long, purplish or green in the immature state, and dark brown when ripe, the scales somewhat more numerous, the bracts all shorter than the scales. The bark is dark bluish-grey, smoother than in the red larch, on thet mink and lower boughs often glossy ; the branches are more or less pendulous and very slender. The red larch grows usually on higher and drierground, ranging from the Virginian mountains to the H shores of Hudson's Bay ; the black larch is found often on moist land, and even in swamps. The hackmatack is one of the most valuable timber trees of America ; it is in great demand in the ports of the St Lawrence for shipbuilding, the best vessels built in British America having their frames wholly or partially constructed of this fine wood. It is far more durable than any of the oaks of that -region, is heavy and close-grained, and much stronger, as well as more hating, than that of the pines and firs of Canada. In many parts all the finer trees have been cut down, but large woods of it .still exist in the less accessible districts; it abounds especially near Lake St John, and in Newfoundland is the prevalent tree in seine •of the forest tracts ; it is likewise common in Maine and Vermont. In the timber and building yards the "red" hackmatack is the kind preferred, the produce, probably, of L. microcarpa ; the " grey " is less esteemed ; but the varieties from which these woods are obtained cannot always be traced with certainty. Several tine specimens of the red larch exist in English parks, but its growth is much slower than that of L. enropwa, and it has never been planted on a large scale ; the more pendulous forms of L. pcndula are elegant trees for the garden. The hackmatacks might per-Imps be grown with advantage in places too wet for the common larch.

I n western America a larch occurs more nearly resembling L. enropxa, the western larch (L. occidentalis) of Nutttill, who speaks of it as found by him in "the coves of the Rocky Mountains on the western slope towards the Oregon." The leaves are short, thicker and more rigid than in any of the other larches; the cones are much larger than those of the hackmatacks, egg-shaped or oval in outline ; the scales are of a fine red in the immature state, the bracts green and extending far beyond the scales in a rigid leaf-like point. The bark of the trunk has the same reddish tint as that of the common larch of Europe. This is probably the tree described by Fremont as the European larch, and found by him in great abund ance on the Blue Mountains, near the valley called the Grand Bond. He alludes to the large size of the trunk, some of the trees being 200 feet high and one 10 feet in circumference ; the stems were often clear of branches for 100 feet from the ground. Little is known of the quality of the timber, but specimens of the wood seem to be firm and close in grain ; the colour is a pale reddish tint throughout. From its great size the tree would appear worthy of the attention of American planters.

The other species of the genus Larix present few features of interest except to the botanist. (C. P. J.)

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