Autumn colors

Larch Madness

What makes larch trees so unique? Is there only one type of larch tree? Where to find larch trees! Find the answers to these questions by reading below and watch for our upcoming blog posts on some of our favourite larch sightings (outside of the Bow Valley).

The turning colour of the alpine larch (Larix lyallii) trees among the mountain landscapes has gained incredible momentum for fall hiking in the Canadian Rockies. We hear people talk about Larch Valley and locations in Banff and Lake Louise. Larch trees are far from being exclusive to the Bow Valley, or even to the Canadian Rockies.

Alpine larch in the Columbia Mountains.

The alpine larch is just one of many types of larch trees. I was first introduced to larch trees when I worked in northern Alberta doing environmental work in oil and gas. They amazed me when travelling through the boreal forest and seeing a landscape filled with views of black spruce and larches (Larix laricina). A common name we hear for this larch tree is tamarack, which confused me for a long time. What is tamarack? Is tamarack and larch the same thing? Tamaracks are larch trees, but are not the same type of larch tree that we find in the subalpine at elevations between 1,500 – 2,200m (Natural Resources Canada, 2019). It is different, but very similar. In Thailand, they have a saying for this, “Same. Same. But different.”

Another beautiful alpine larch.

So, I did some more digging. What is the difference? It’s really subtle and by looking at the tree, most people would not know. It comes down to things like their needle-like leaves and the number of sides the needle has. The biggest difference, in my opinion, is its distribution and ecoregion. Alpine larches grow in subalpine environments with other trees like subalpine fir and whitebark pine (Natural Resources Canada, 2019). Tamaracks grow in the boreal forest in bogs and muskegs with 1) black spruce and/or eastern white-cedar or 2) black spruce, white spruce, trembling aspen, and white birch (Natural Resources Canada, 2019).

Just to make things more confusing, we have a third type of larch tree in Canada and some of its distribution area overlaps with the alpine larch. The western larch (Larix occidentalis), which is found at elevations between 400 – 1,500m and is usually mixed with Douglas fir, western white pine, lodgepole pine, Engelman spruce, subalpine fir, western hemlock, ponderosa pine. When I zoomed in on their distribution map, it appears that this tree may even grow in Waterton (Natural Resources Canada, 2019). While I have yet to see it grow here, I will certainly keep my eyes peeled for a lower elevation larch tree.

Oops, all of my pictures are alpine larches! Alpine larch by Castle Provincial Park.

The one thing these three trees have in common is that they all turn a beautiful shade of yellow and then golden before they officially lose their leaves. This makes them unique as they are a coniferous (bearing cones), yet deciduous (lose their leaves) trees. Typically, coniferous trees are evergreens, like spruce, pine, or fir trees.  

I mentioned that larch trees are not unique to the Canadian Rockies and this holds true for alpine larches. Banff and Lake Louise, and the people who go here, have done a great job of marketing these locations – so well, that the line up along the road to go into Larch Valley far exceeds my excitement to see a larch. So, where else are these beautiful gems found? Well, all over the place – in the Purcells with beautiful turquoise waters, in the south Canadian Rockies and I’m sure many other places. Remember though, that the majority of them are above 1,500m and the alpine larch need wet, yet well-drained soils. I often see them on northeast or northwest facing slopes. I spend my summers getting excited when I see a patch of larch trees and know that this spot is going to be stunning in the fall. Since my area of expertise is the south Canadian Rockies, I want to share a couple of locations over the next few days with beautiful spots to go adventure. Stay tuned to our blog as we reveal stories of the south Canadian Rockies.

Heather Davis – Owner & Guide of Uplift Adventures

Heather is trained by the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides as a Hiking Guide and Interpretive Guide Association currently as an Apprentice Interpreter Guide, with a University Degree in Environmental Science and a Professional Agrologist with the Alberta Institute of Agrology. She has a passion for the outdoors and connecting others to the environment – a place that has given her the space to heal after traumatic events. She believes that we are always learning more about ourselves and our surroundings – let’s go find out more and see what we are capable of.

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