Tree of the Year 2012 is the European Larch, Larix decidua – it was announced by the Tree of the Year Foundation. IlseAigner, Federal Minister of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, is to be patron of this particularly fine species.
Originating in the Alps and the Carpathian Mountains, larches grow in areas as high as 2000m where they often form the tree line and thus serve as an efficient protection against avalanches. In Germany, however, larches are today also cultivated in low mountain ranges and even at sea level, even though they form no more than 1% of the overall woodland area.The larch is the only indigenous conifer which drops its needles in autumn. It also changes colour in the course of the year, its needles turning a spectacular golden yellow in autumn and growing again in spring with a fresh, light green.
Why does this species behave so differently from all other conifers? There is no definite answer, but evolution always serves to ensure the best chances of survival. Originating in the high inner Alps, larch trees need to be able to tolerate extreme temperatures and drought periods – which seems to be easier without needles. In fact, no other species can resist frost so well. It can survive temperatures down to -40°Celsius.
Some of the largest and oldest larch trees can be found in the high mountains of the Swiss canton Wallis, stand-alone giants having braved the elements for hundreds of years. Some of them are more than three meters wide and about 1250 years old: silent witnesses to Charlemagne when he crossed the Alps…European Larch has modest needs in regard to nutrients, ideal when conquering difficult terrain, immature soil or a cleared forest area: larches are so-called pioneer trees. They are also light demanding trees, like birches or pines, they need lots of it. As soon as they need to compete with other species more tolerant of shade, they are soon disadvantaged – they are designed to meet the requirements of very special mountain regions.On low land, larches need forestal encouragement. However, they are increasingly introduced into beech groves where they thrive, adding to diversity of species and structure.
An important reason for their cultivation is their wood, which counts among the most valuable and robust of all conifer woods. A high resin content makes it very durable and means it does not need weatherproofing so that it can be used for numerous purposes outdoors as well as indoors. Coopers consider it the ideal material for wooden buckets and tubs. It is also used in construction. The tower of the Gleiwitz broadcast station (Poland) was built from larch wood. First erected in 1935, it leapt to prominence four years later when the Nazis used a fictitious raid of the tower as a pretense to invade Poland that is today considered the beginning of the Second World War. The tower still exists: 118 m high, it is the highest wooden tower of the world.
Not only the wood, but also the resin is a valuable resource itself: It contains turpentine, which the precious turpentine oil can be extracted from, a potent health remedy often used as the basis of ointments. The cosmetic industry also uses several substances gained from the needles as well as the wood. Did you know that green larch needles are said to work miracles added to a hot bath?The European Larch has a sister: The Japanese Larch. It is cultivated in Germany as well because the European Larch is susceptible to a self-destructive cancer. Consequently there also are hybrids.
European Larch tolerates pollutants comparatively well, probably because it loses its needles every year, only atmospheric ozone is a serious problem. Recent research in England shows larches are the best choice for improving air quality: Much more of them should be grown in cities! They are also wonderful garden trees. They turn green early in spring and color late in autumn and their filigree needles let through plenty of light to the rest of the garden.
In the mountains, these trees have been shrouded in legend from time immemorial: They were said to be the home of well-disposed forest fairies who showed lost wanderers the way, presented the poor with magic purses that never emptied, bread bins that were always filled and cheeses that continuously replenish themselves.
Translated by WiebkeRoloff