- David Hale
Larch trees (Larix) are a fantastic specimen for bonsai which unlike most conifers have the added feature of being deciduous. They are easy to care for and look great with rugged bark, autumn colour change and a nice bare-bones display in winter. Their cones and flowers are interesting and add to what is already an amazing bonsai species. In this blog, we'll tell you everything you need to know about larch bonsai tree care, so you can grow and improve your collection of these wonderful trees.
- Larix bonsai species
- Larch bonsai placement
- Larch bonsai pruning
- Wiring larch bonsai
- Larch bonsai styling
- Watering larch bonsai
- Repotting larch bonsai
- Larch bonsai FAQs
Larix bonsai species
There are various trees in the Larix family that are commonly used for bonsai and they all share the same general characteristics with some minor differences.
Larix trees are deciduous conifers, meaning they bear cones like other evergreen conifer trees (such as pines), but they drop their needles each year during autumn like a deciduous tree (such as birch).
Larch trees grow light green leaves that are thin and needle-like. They either grow in tufts along branches or as shoots, which create new branches. During autumn Larix trees will shed their foliage and re-grow it the following year in early spring.
Larch grows reproductive cones, known as 'larch roses' that are highly decorative. They are colored a combination of pink, white and green. After these cones are pollinated by wind, they turn brown and will start to resemble pines cones.
Larch trees are vigorous and fast-growing. They thicken their trunk and branches very easily if handled correctly and as such are ideal for quickly creating high-value bonsai material. They are strong bonsai that will live for many years.
As mentioned, there are a few varieties of Larix used for bonsai. They each have subtle differences when compared to each other, so let's look at them each in turn. As well as those listed here, there are various hybrid varieties that still share the same common larch characteristics.
European larch (Larix decidua) bonsai
European larch (Larix decidua) has the same growth pattern of spur/rosette growth with some shooting growth. They have very fine foliage when compared to other larch species, and as such can often make a more scaled and delicate bonsai. European larch has a silvery-grey, rugged bark.
One feature often used to distinguish larch species is their cones. European larch have very upright oriented scales on their cones when compared with other larch varieties.
Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi) bonsai
Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi) has a coarser growth than European larch, and generally a deeper shade of green to its foliage. With this added coarseness tends to come and associated hardiness during winter, which can be beneficial for those growing bonsai in very cold areas. Japanese larch has a reddish-brown color to its bark, which can be a bit flakier than the European larch.
Japanese larch cones tend to have scales that are orientated outwards rather than upwards.
American larch (Larix laricina) bonsai
American larch (Larix laricina), also known as Tamarack, lies somewhere between European and Japanese larch. It generally has shorter needles than the Japanese larch. American larch has an orangey-brown bark color.
Larch bonsai placement
Larch trees mostly come from alpine regions or temperate regions, and so your larch bonsai must be grown outside. Larch can tolerate full sun but may require some light shade if you live in a very hot area. Like all bonsai trees, the foliage on larch acts as a vehicle for water evaporation, which cools the tree, so the more foliage your larch bonsai has, the more heat-tolerant it will be.
Larch bonsai winter care
Larch bonsai tolerate winters well and often do not require any winter protection. Of course, this depends on the area you live in as well as the individual bonsai. Here are some reasons why you may want to give your larch some extra winter protection:
- You live somewhere that gets extremely cold
- The tree has health issues
- The tree is very refined
- The bonsai is planted in a very small container
You can protect your larch by placing it off the bench and on the ground, heeling it in with mulch or leaves, placing it in a wind shelter or placing it in a greenhouse.
Larch bonsai pruning
Pruning is a key part of caring for any bonsai tree and Larch are no different. Larch is a very vigorous species of tree that requires multiple prunings each year to shape them as a bonsai. The excessive strength of larch needs to be managed in a way that reduces internode length between buds and increases the amount of branching on the tree.
When to prune larch bonsai
The first time to prune your larch bonsai is in Spring before growth starts. This is pretty much your only opportunity in the year to prune in your bonsai's shape and apply wire to hold it there.
Once the foliage has grown on a larch it can often become impossible to see the branching structure and too congested with foliage for you to apply wire. It can be done, but there is a very high chance of damage to a lot of the foliage that has grown on the tree so I would only recommend doing a full styling of larch in full leaf if you really have to (I have never found a good enough reason yet).
If you did your spring styling as planned, the other times for pruning your larch bonsai will be guided by the tree. The common goal of pruning a bonsai tree is to maintain or develop its shape, and to increase the number of fine branches on the tree (ramification).
A Larch bonsai ready for the first pruning of this year's growth.
The first flush of growth from a larch bonsai will be very coarse, with a long internode length (the length between buds). This doesn't help us build a refined bonsai, so to get more usable growth later in the year, you should let shoots run to around 4 inches before pruning them off. This often occurs in late May or early June.
After that, you will have 2 or 3 further pushes of growth depending on the vigour of the tree, your fertilization regime and the length of your growing season. With each subsequent pruning, the next flush of growth will become finer and have buds sitting closer together. When your larch pushes growth that you want to keep, cut it back to the desired bud.
A new bud circled in red.
How to prune larch bonsai
During spring prunings, your primary goals will be to set the design and structure of the tree (if this has never been done before) and to tidy up last year's growth. You must fix any structural flaws right now because as mentioned above you won't be able to spot them once the leaves have grown.
Larch will often grow 'knuckles' where 3 or 4 buds originate from one point in the branch. These always need to be reduced to 2 buds otherwise it can create a swelling there that results in inverse taper. The same also applies to places where more than two branches are growing from the same level on a branch. If you count the trunk as a branch for this, then you should never have more than one branch originating from one point on the trunk.
A larch branch during the first pruning of the year. Note the green tips on the buds indicating this is the perfect time to prune, as well as some congested areas that need pruned out.
Inverse taper is where the tree gets wider as your eye moves up the trunk or branch. It should get gradually narrower, so a bulge interrupting the eye line is usually not desirable for bonsai.
When pruning larch bonsai you must also cut back to a bud that can take over as the growing tip of this branch. This applies to spring prunings, where established buds are easily identifiable, but also to summer prunings of fresh shoots.
If you do not cut back to a bud, the length of the branch left on the end that doesn't have a bud on it will die, which means you will have to come back and cut it off next spring.
New buds on fresh shoots can be spotted as little orange/brown lumps. If you can't see any, then cut that shoot off right at its base. There are always 2 or 3 buds at the base of larch shoots that will be stimulated to grow when you prune back to them.
When pruning new growth, you are ideally looking for a pair of buds within half an inch of the origin of the site of growth. This is unlikely to happen in your first maintenance pruning of the year, so you will likely cut all those fresh shoots back to the base of their growth. As the energy of the tree gets diluted through the year, buds will get closer together. If you find a pair of buds that you are happy keeping, cut the branch so they are left at the very tip. In an ideal scenario, they will grow again this year creating more branching. If they don't, they will next year.
A two new buds circled in red. Buds closely orientated like this is the ideal scenario you are looking for to improve the ramification of your bonsai.
It's important to note that, unlike broadleaf deciduous trees, it is not a good idea to prune larch after they have dropped their leaves in autumn. Larch bonsai pruned in this way will be more likely to lose branches over the winter, so it's best to be patient and wait until spring to do your next pruning.
Wiring larch bonsai
Larch is probably my favorite species of tree to wire. If you do it at the right time, there are no physical blockers to applying wire and they are very easy to shape. Larch is generally quite flexible and can tolerate bends easily.
If you are new to bonsai and looking for a good bonsai species to practise wiring, then larch in spring is ideal.
You can use either copper or aluminium wire for larch bonsai. Copper has the advantage of requiring a smaller thickness wire to achieve the same degree of hold. This is because copper wire 'work hardens', meaning it gets harder the more it is moved. Aluminium wire is softer and easier to bend, so you generally need thicker wire than copper. Many practitioners will prefer to use aluminium wire over copper because it requires less hand strength to apply.
Wire should be applied at a 45-60° angle along the branch or trunk. The direction you wrap the wire should be dictated by the direction of the bend you are looking to make. If you want to bend a branch left, wire should be applied clockwise. If you want to bend right, then wrap your wire anti-clockwise. The reason for this is as you bend you want the wire to stretch and work, rather than being pushed off the branch and creating gaps between the wire and the branch. These gaps stop the wire from doing its job and they also don't look great.
A fully wired Larch branch.
You should leave wire on your bonsai long enough for it to start to 'bite' into the bark. This means enough new tissue has grown to hold the bend in place. Don't worry about scarring - the rough bark on Larch will disguise all but the very worst marks in a year or two.
Another thing you need to do to make sure your wire is functional on your bonsai is to anchor it in some way. If the wire isn't held in place at one end, it will twist and come loose. There are various ways to anchor wire, but the most common is to pair two branches together. Using one wire that spans two branches will mean that as you bend the branches, you tighten the wire on both branches at once. This holds them in place well. Other anchoring strategies include double wrapping wire around one branch or securing wire to a piece of deadwood.
If you are bending a big branch, you may need a guy wire to do the work. This is where you attach one end of a wire to the branch you are bending and attach the other to an anchor such as some deadwood or a hidden screw in the trunk. as you bend the branch, you can tighten the guy wire to take the strain of the bend.
Larch bonsai styling
As mentioned, larch is a malleable species that is easily styled. There are many styles available to you depending on your material and the first decision you'll need to make is whether you want to create a traditional Japanese bonsai form or a more modern, wild bonsai form that mirrors the natural features of Larch.
If you're going down the natural route, then remember that larch naturally comes from alpine regions that are affected by snow and wind. As such, a steep downward angle of branches from the trunk with triangular-shaped branch pads can help you achieve that aesthetic.
Windswept larch bonsai
Larch trees can be great material for creating windswept bonsai. They can be easily wired into shape and suit a tortured, windswept appearance thanks to their rugged bark and features. Windswept larch bonsai look particularly good in winter when leaves have dropped when they can show their fine branching.
A Larch bonsai forest after a repot.
Larch bonsai forest
Larch is easily grown as groupings and can be maintained as forests with relatively little effort. If you are growing a larch forest then make sure you consider interior branches when pruning to give them enough light to thrive.
Literati larch bonsai
Literati is a bonsai style that involves long, slender lines and very minimal foliage. Larch can be a really interesting and somewhat challenging species to use for literati due to the vigorous growth and abundant foliage in the growing season. Particular care needs to be taken to hold back excessive growth and encourage fine ramification. That said, during spring literati Larch bonsai can look amazing when green growth starts to push through, not to mention their lovely winter silhouette.
Larch cascade bonsai
While mostly used as an upright tree, larch can make a nice cascading form if you have the right material. This can be achieved by finding yamadori larch with a strong bend right at the roots, or wiring a young tree to grow into a cascade or semi-cascade shape. By traditional bonsai conventions, a semi-cascade bonsai drops below the rim of the pot, while a full cascading bonsai drops below the feet or base of the pot.
Watering larch bonsai
As a deciduous tree, larch has a relatively high water mobility compared to other conifers. The cuticle on larch needles is thinner than those on a pine, for example, which means they lose more water.
This high water mobility is part of what makes larch such a vigorous species because it helps to move nutrients through the tree for growth, but it also means you need to keep an eye on how dry your trees are getting.
Your larch bonsai will need to be watered when the top layer of soil (around half an inch deep) starts to dry out. Letting the soil start to dry out is very important as it stops your bonsai from being overwatered. This can discourage root growth and lead to health problems with your trees.
You should try to avoid watering on a schedule, instead checking your trees on a schedule but only applying water if they need it then (or if they will need it before you are next going to check). For more details take a look at our checklist for bonsai watering.
Repotting larch bonsai
As a deciduous tree that is faster growing than most other conifers, larch needs to be repotted more frequently. This is generally every 3-5 years, you should do your best to not repot on a schedule and read your tree instead.
You can decide when to repot your larch bonsai based on three criteria:
- When watering, if water runs off the root ball and does not pass through it then you may need to repot to increase water percolation again
- If the soil has started to break down and decay, you may need to repot to get rid of decomposing soil
- If you want to change the style of your bonsai, such as the front, planting angle or pot, then you feel free to do so (this is an art form after all!)
Repotting should be performed in late Winter or early Spring, as the tree is waking up from dormancy. The absolute best time is to repot just as the buds are turning green. The tree will have loads of stored energy from the previous year, so repotting now will allow the tree to allocate its resources to root regeneration and not grow foliage that it won't be able to support after a repot.
When it comes to their roots, larch is more similar to other conifers than they are to deciduous trees. Larch trees rely on a relationship between their roots and microorganisms in the soil, known as mycorrhiza. To foster this relationship, you should make sure you always leave a portion of the roots untouched when repotting larch bonsai. This ensures there is an area of the rootball where the protective Funghi are undisturbed and can recolonize the rest of the pot and the new soil.
Freeing the tree from the pot with a root sickle.
Try to be methodical when you are repotting your larch. Repotting is often likened to open-heart surgery for your tree, so make sure you give your bonsai the best chance of success by taking particular care with how you handle it through the whole procedure.
When I'm repotting my larches, I follow the same basic steps as with the rest of my bonsai collection:
- Take the tree out of the pot. Start by freeing the roots around the edges of the pot using a root sickle. Next cut any tie-down wires and pull the tree out of the pot. Make sure the tree and the soil mass move as one entity - you don't want the tree to come out without its roots.
- Start working from the top of the soil mass down to the nebari. Remove soil and moss with a chopstick to find the widest point of the base - this often expands or becomes buried over the years. Then keep removing soil until you find intact soil particles that haven't significantly broken down. This means you have now removed any barriers to water percolation through the top half of the root mass.
- Next remove the matted roots on the underside of the root ball. You can then reduce the height of the soil column as needed, again by using a chopstick to scrape away soil. Focus on removing areas of decomposed soil that could be a cause of health issues with your larch. Decomposed soil will look black and sometimes smells sour.
The matted roots on the underside of a Larch forest bonsai.
- Now you can tackle the sides of the root mass, cutting away the matted roots and working the diameter of the root ball inwards as required. This should be the final act of root removal you do because it usually compromises the integrity of the root ball.
- Get your pot ready. First, add drainage screens, then add your tie-down wires. These tie-down wires are not only essential for keeping your tree in the pot, but also for keeping it completely immobile. If your larch is wiggling in the pot, roots won't be encouraged to grow and your bonsai may not recover from its repot.
- Add a light layer of soil to the bottom of the pot, then a small mound of soil in the centre. Place your tree onto the soil mound and work the soil into any holes in the root ball you have created when removing old soil. Settle the tree and tie it into place. Fill the rest of the pot with soil.
- Use a chopstick to work the soil into any spaces you have created in the soil mass. Roots need soil to grow, so the more of these spaces that you can fill with soil the better. Use a light stabbing motion to work soil under the tree.
- Grind up some dried sphagnum moss and green moss to use as topdressing. Sprinkle a light layer over the soil mass, then mist with a spray bottle of water. The spray will hold the topdressing in place (I always find it amazing how well this works). The topdressing will develop into a mossy covering over the next few months, which helps in maintaining water balance in the soil mass and encourages the growth of healthy microorganisms.
- Finally, your tree needs a very thorough watering. Ensure you water the soil mass and not the foliage (watering the leaves of your bonsai can encourage the spread of fungal diseases) and let the water run through the pot until it is clear. This will mean you have eliminated any crushed soil particles that could cause congestion in the pot.
After repotting your larch, you should ideally keep it in a place that is sheltered from both rain and wind. You should allow the pot to dry out quite significantly after the first watering, as the high oxygen concentration in the pot will stimulate the healing of cut root tips and the generation of new roots. If you water your bonsai excessively after a repot, wounded roots can rot instead of healing.
Larch bonsai FAQs
Can you air layer larch?
Larch trees air layer very well and this can be a great method for propagating bonsai material. Unlike broadleaf deciduous trees, larch may struggle if you do not leave at least one branch below the layer so I would avoid ground layering larch.
Is larch good for bonsai?
Yes, larch is definitely good for bonsai. They are a very strong species that can be easily styled and have a lot of attractive features. They are a very approachable species for beginners in particular.
Is a larch tree deciduous or evergreen?
Larch is a deciduous conifer, meaning it drops its leaves every year like other deciduous trees but grows cones and needles like other conifers.
Can you grow larch bonsai indoors?
Larch bonsai cannot be grown indoors. Larch trees grow in temperate climates and require cold winters for dormancy. If you try to grow a larch bonsai inside, it will slowly lose strength and die.
What is the best larch species for bonsai?
European larch (Larix decidua) has the finest foliage and branching of all larch species, and probably looks the best as a bonsai. Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi) is the strongest larch species, so is a good choice for beginners or those who have less time to spend on their trees.
Will larch back bud?
Larch trees do not back bud. If you need a branch in a bare location on your bonsai I would consider grafting instead.
Larch bonsai yellow needles / dropping leaves - is this normal?
Every year your larch bonsai will have its foliage turn yellow and drop off as part of their normal annual cycle. New leaves will grow back next spring. If your larch foliage is yellowing or dropping at a different time of year it is likely a sign of over- or under-watering or a disease.