Collecting American Larch
by Reiner Goebel
See a large image of this tree
The American larch is a member of the pine family. It grows in most
parts of Canada and the north-eastern United States. In Canada, it
ranges from the Mackenzie River area in the Northwest Territories
through northern British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, Manitoba
and Ontario (except for its southern-most areas), Quebec and the
Maritime provinces. In the United States, its range includes
north-eastern Minnesota, almost all of Wisconsin, a northern strip of
Indiana, all of Michigan, the north-eastern part of Ohio, and the New
England states north of a line drawn from about Erie, PA to New York
It is a lovely tree!
Let me start by describing the numerous attractive features of this
tree. Larches form beautiful root systems once they become established
in bonsai pots. Indeed, surface roots may have to be thinned out
periodically. Looking up the trunk, one is immediately struck by the
beauty of the bark. Gorgeous! It is similar to Japanese black pine.
Larches are usually well branched and because they grow quickly, their
branch structure becomes well ramified within a few years. Before the
new needles emerge, the impression of ramification is intensified
because the fat little buds can look like branch stubs. Flowering on
larches can be conspicuous in those years when they produce an abundance
of purple female flowers, which eventually mature into cones quite in
keeping with the somewhat dainty appearance of the tree. Larches are
attractive to view in all seasons: they are well ramified when bare; their dainty
spring foliage is held in tiny rosettes of greyish-green; these needles develop
into mature pads of foliage by summer, and turn a golden yellow by
Locating The Tree:
A lovely tree, indeed, and well worth collecting. I usually go scouting
for trees in the fall - I can concentrate on the trees without having to
worry about digging them up. In fall, larches are easy to find because with their yellow foilage,
they stand out like beacons among the cedars, spruce, pines and rocks.
The weather at this time of year can be miserable. But, more often than
not, it's glorious: crisp fall air, cloudless sky, and silence broken
only by the odd bird and the sound of waves crashing onto the shores of
Lake Huron. Under conditions like that, finding a larch worth collecting
next spring is a bonus!
The American larch usually grows in the neighbourhood of other trees; it
rarely occurs in pure stands. Although I have read that they are
intolerant of shade, my experience of where larches grow indicates
otherwise. This may be due to the fact that if they grew in full sun
where I collect them, they would be too exposed to the elements to
survive. They may have settled for surviving in sheltered but shady
conditions rather than eking out a living in an exposed but sunny spot.
Anyway, I consider them shade tolerant, especially in bonsai culture,
where parts of their needles can turn brown by August, detracting from
the beauty of the fall colouration.
Collecting in the Spring:
Larches are best collected in spring, at a time when their buds have
burst to show the green of the emerging foliage. They are somewhat
difficult to get through the first six months after collecting. The
difficulty stems from the fact that they often do not form very compact
root systems. They send two or three main roots a great distance
away from the trunk, with all the feeder roots too far away to make it
practical to keep them. The older the tree and the drier the growing
conditions, the worse this problem seems to get. I have found that trees
growing in wettish conditions are more likely to have good root systems,
and therefore stand a better chance of surviving being dug up.
The soil in which collectible larches often grow can be intermixed with
rocks of all sizes and shapes, roots of other plants and the skeletal
remains of those that died long ago; it is often not more than a foot
deep and usually shallower. Such shallow root balls allow immediate
planting in bonsai pots, although I try not to overdo it and give them
plenty of room and therefore soil to grow into.
With rare exceptions,
larches do not produce branch elongations in the year they are
collected. Instead, the buds open to form short-needled (from 1/4" to
3/8") rosette-like clusters. The short needles of the first
year are very attractive, but unfortunately I have not been able to
duplicate that needle habit and length in later years, even though I
water sparingly and fertilize only lightly once a tree is established. Over the summer, the newly collected tree
will form next year's buds in the centre of the rosettes - usually a
sign that the tree is going to make it.
After a tree has been dug up, I may set it in the lake or some puddle
nearby if I feel that soil and roots are on the dry side. The root ball
is then allowed to drain and is wrapped in a plastic garbage bag for
transport home. I try to pot up my collected trees the next day. If I
cannot get to them right away, they are kept in a sheltered spot and
misted as often as I think of it. It is important that the few roots
remaining are not allowed to dry out and that the whole tree is kept in
a very humid environment. I would love to be able to arrange for a
constant drizzle and mild temperatures for about a week or two after I
come back from collecting!
Before planting the tree in a pot, I let the root ball soak in a
Superthrive solution, and soak it again after potting up is finished.
The tree is then kept in the shade (pretty well total shade) and out of
the wind as much as possible. And there it stays for the next two to
three months, getting watered frequently with a fogging nozzle as
described above. During this time, I do not water the root ball, because
it stays moist from the drippings produced by the constant fogging. I
treat all my collected conifers this way, and it seems to work.
Once I am satisfied that my collected larch is going to make it - the
tree is producing new growth or forming next year's buds - I move it
into regular conditions of full sun or light shade and stop watering the
whole tree as a matter of course. I usually don't work on my newly
collected trees until the third growing season. At that time, I may also
repot the larch and start treating it as a bonsai.
See a large image of this tree
Because larches are native to our region, overwintering them is not really a
problem. I simply dig them into the ground, inside their pots, and up to
the rim of the pots, in a sheltered spot in my garden.
Indeed, the larch is a lovely tree!