The Curious Case of the Larch

I didn’t grow up around larch trees. The first time I saw an amber slope of larches in the fall, I made the common mistake and assumed they were dying. I later learned that larches are one of the few conifers that are deciduous, meaning they drop their needles for the winter and grow a new set in the spring. This attribute makes them seem like a primitive hold-over from an ancient world — as if they were the only conifers that didn’t get the evolutionary memo that “evergreen” is the new normal.

Larches defy most conifer convention. They grow needles but the needles are soft, not stiff and pokey like most other conifers. They grow cones, but instead of resembling a pine or fir cone, they start out looking like purple-pink blossoms. And half the time the trees look dead, but they aren’t.

To me, they seem other-worldly, full of surprises, a little magical. For instance, this autumn, golden larch needles showered into Tumalo Creek. Instead of washing downstream, they gathered by the thousands in eddies and pools where they formed intricate floating patterns. Sometimes the needles aligned end-to-end in sweeping lines across a pool, as if following their own magnetic poles. Other times, the needles drifted against half-sunken logs looking like crazy golden fur on a sleeping bear. But most mystifying were the clusters of floating baskets woven of larch needles, each adorned with fallen leaves. They revolved slowly, sharing a needle here and there with a neighbor, but remaining a distinct creation. I watched them for an hour, enchanted.

Oh you mystical larches, how many days would I need to sit by the creek to see how your baskets are made?