is essentially a mountain tree. It abounds on the Alps up to an altitude of
5,000 feet, and occurs on the Apennines and Carpathians, but is unknown in a
wild state on the Pyrenees, or in the Spanish or Scandinavian peninsulas. It
forms large woods in Russia, but is represented in Northern Asia by a variety (Larix
sibirica), with smooth, gray bark, sometimes considered a distinct species.
Though it grows well on a limestone subsoil, it is on sloping mountain sides, where the oldest rocks of the earth's crust crumble into crystalline fragments over some brawling beck that tumbles through the glen, that the Larch is seen in its greatest beauty. The regularly-tapering stem, with its scaly, reddish-grey bark, so prone to become covered with the shaggy tufts of hoary lichen, then loses its stiff, erect posture, curving in a direction slightly sinuous, as well as oblique.
The genus Larix, to which the Larch (L. europaea) belongs, is distinguished among Firs by its deciduous foliage, and the whole joyousness of spring seems heralded and epitomized in the emerald glory of its April frondescence. The light-green needles appear in tufts, as they do also in the evergreen Cedars, upon the old wood of the slender branches, surrounding the extremities of "dwarf shoots," which gradually lengthen out, until, as on the youngest shoots, each needle stands alone as one of a spiral series.
in April or May, the male flowers being in nearly spherical clusters, which partake of that yellow color so general among stamens, whilst the female ones form the said "rosy plumelets." These young cones are sometimes greenish-white; but the red or purple-colored ones are said to belong to varieties yielding better timber. The scales of these cones, after fertilization, become reddish-brown in hue, and the cones lengthen to more than an inch, with an egg-shaped outline, before these scales spread outwards to discharge their winged seeds in autumn. The cones stand erect upon a short, but strong, bent foot-stalk or peduncle, and often remain for years upon the branches after having discharged their seeds, becoming then of a dead grey colour. The small ovate seed is more than half surrounded by the broad membranous wing, which often causes it to be carried some distance by the wind, this tree ripening its seed and sowing itself in this country as freely as does the Scotch Fir.
The appearance in any one year of large numbers of cones upon a tree generally points to some defect in its nutrition, analogous to that produced artificially by rootpruning. The subsoil may be too stiff, or may contain stagnant water, or the roots may have met with an obstructive ironstone "pan," or other impenetrable stratum; but certainly in some way the vegetative growth has suffered a check, and the food supply has been diverted to the reproductive system.
In favourable situations the Larch grows to a height of from eighty to upwards of a hundred feet, and has been known to reach 140 feet, with a diameter of from three to five feet; and it is stated to sometimes exceed eighty feet in height in fifty years, and to live to an age of from 150 to 200 years. Unlike the Spruce and many other Firs, its growth is rapid from the first, reaching fifteen or twenty feet within twelve years of its being sown, whilst for the first forty or fifty years of its life its average annual increase in girth in Scotland is stated to be from an inch to an inch and a half.
The Larch was not apparently known to the Greeks; but, being abundant on the Apennines, Pliny often refers to it, speaking of the incorruptible and incombustible nature of its timber. Caesar, too, terms it "robusta larix, igni impenetrabile lignum," the fact being that its wood does kindle slowly, instead of blazing up like Pine. The woody fibers being closely interwoven, Larch timber cannot be readily split in a straight line, and, when properly seasoned, is so hard as to be difficult to work. It is, however, difficult to season; and accordingly, in thin boards, though not liable to crack or to shrink to any great extent, is very prone to warp or twist--a fact which renders it more suitable for use either "in the round," or when merely squared. It has, however, been proposed to season it by barking it two years before felling the tree, a plan commonly adopted with the Teak. The heart-wood is reddish-brown, when grown in a cold situation, and very light in weight, weighing when dry about thirty-six pounds per cubic foot; but the wood of the richer soils of lowland forests is often of a yellowish-white. Owing to the small size of the lateral branches the wood is comparatively free from knots, and those which occur do not rot or become loose. No wood remains longer uninjured by water, so that it was once largely used on the Continent for waterpipes; and when the bark is left on it is extremely durable, both above and under ground, and therefore suited for use for posts, vine-props, and hop-poles. For these purposes it is planted close, so that the trunks are drawn up in a long and slender form. The closeness of the grain, moreover, renders Larch timber but little liable to splintering, which adapts it for the superstructures of warships.
Though the bark is of use for tanning, it is inferior to Oak, so that it is not remunerative to sacrifice any of the value of the timber by felling the trees, for the sake of the bark, at an unsuitable season.
Its leaves, though they come at a season when grass is generally plentiful, are eaten by sheep and cattle in Switzerland, and valuable charcoal can be made from the branches. But next to its timber, the most important product of the Larch is undoubtedly Venice turpentine. This is collected in the Valais and Briancon, by tapping fully-grown trees when the resinous spring sap begins to flow. Holes slanting upwards are then bored with an auger into the trees, and fitted with wooden tubes, through which the turpentine distils from May to September, a full-grown and healthy Larch yielding, if tapped when at the proper age, from seven to eight pounds of turpentine annually for forty or fifty years. This turpentine takes the name of Venice from being shipped from that port. The wood from which the turpentine has been thus extracted is of no value except as firewood; but from the Alpine valleys, where the drooping Larch branches have, it is suggested, determined the angle of the low roofs of the chalets, Venice has derived not only turpentine, but also the piles upon which the city is built--a strong testimony to the durability of Larch timber under the most destructive conditions.
The Larch is generally raised from seed, that grown in Germany being preferred, since with us the cones are often incompletely ripened. The seedlings are transplanted when two or three years old, and their rapid growth, the utility of the thinnings at all ages, and the great value of the mature timber, especially in ship-building, have caused the Larch, though practically it has only been in cultivation for a century, to be generally recognized as affording a safer, greater, and more rapid return to capital than any other tree grown in Britain.