After most of the broadleafed trees have lost their leaves, the larches are still putting on a show on this mountainside near the Idaho/Canada border.
There is a story, true or apocryphal I am not sure, about a couple that bought property and moved to North Idaho around Thanksgiving time. They immediately set about clearing the property of what they felt was an excessive number of dead conifers. After a few days, a neighbor stopped by to see what they were up to. They explained about the dead trees and the neighbor laughed himself silly. “Those aren’t dead trees!” he finally spat out. “Those are larches! They lose their needles each fall just like maples or cottonwoods and grow new ones each spring!”
Larches, sometimes called western tamaracks, are deciduous conifers, evergreens if you will, that aren’t ever-green. It is true that these beautiful trees not only lose their needles (modified leaves) but turn a beautiful golden hue during the transition, just like aspens.
There are three native species in the genus, Larix. Our western larch, Larix occidentalis, is found from British Columbia south to Washington, western Montana, northern Oregon and northern and west-central Idaho. So, we won’t see them around Idaho Falls, but just a few hours north into Montana and larches are very evident in the fall.
Tamarack, or Larix laricina, is found across most of northern North America from the Yukon to Nova Scotia and south through Minnesota and east to New England.
Besides being a more southern species, western larch is a much different tree than its northern and eastern cousin, tamarack. According to the Forest Service, tamarack is a climax species and tends to dominate large expanses. Larch is just the opposite: it is a seral species, often an important component of other climax forests but never forming pure stable stands.
Other than the fact that both species turn yellow each fall, they are very different. Our western larch species is a large and long-lived tree. Huge specimens stretch over 200 feet tall, have a six-foot diameter and may be 900 years old. On the other hand, tamaracks grow to a maximum of 75 feet, with a basal diameter up to 20 inches and living, at most, 200 years.
Given the size differences, it isn’t surprising that the wood value of the two species differs as well. The tamarack is used mostly for pulpwood. The western larch is considered to be one of the most valuable tree in western forests. Its wood is dense, straight grained and decay-resistant and burns hot and long in a woodstove.
The third species, alpine larch, Larix lyallii, is found near timberline in North Idaho and southern British Columbia and Alberta and in the Cascade Range of Washington. This small, commercially inviable tree occurs in tiny disjunct patches that hint of glory days long past when it is believed to have been part of a vast forest that stretched for hundreds of miles.
So, why aren’t there larches around Palisades or on the Henrys Fork? It appears that several factors are working together to thwart the larch from extending its range southward. First, the larch prefers lower elevations, growing as low as 1,500 feet above sea level. Idaho Falls sits at about 4,200 feet a.s.l. Soils may also be an issue. The larch prefers acidic soils and our soils run to the basic side. Mostly though, it appears that larch prefer a moister climate.
It doesn’t appear that our climate is going to get wetter and the Teton Range is still rising, so if we want to see the larches change color, we will have to head north to where they live. A little travel isn’t such a bad deal.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho