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Plant Profiles

Dwarf Eastern Larch



The branches of full-size larches are so widely spaced that the tree can look gaunt in Winter. No such problem with a dwarf such as Larix laricina 'Deborah Waxman'. Dwarf larches are dwarf because their stems don't grow far at all before they produce new side branches. The overall size of the tree is greatly reduced, but it's plausible that a mature dwarf has about the same number of twigs as a mature full-sizer.


In the warm months, the  needles are blue-green, and the bush is feathery but dense.





After the needles have been shed in Fall, the plant's strikingly dense branching is revealed.





Fortunately, larches tolerate almost any degree of pruning: New needles readily emerge from the dormant buds, which are the bumps so visible in the close-up below.




My first "de-twigging" was several years ago, and involved removing all the lower stems...




...then thinning the shrub to just a few main limbs, each with just a few twigs remaining at its tip.




Larches being larches, however, regrowth was swift. And dwarf larches being dwarf larches, it was so thick that the original congestion was soon restored. I've now chosen to synergize Deborah's determination to resprout with the unusual verticality of her sprouts, and the longer-lasting green of their needles in Fall: I've sawn off all the limbs, leaving a minimum of twigs to ensure (I hope) vigorously resprouting.




Assuming regrowth is as strong as predicted, I might be able to even up these limbs by sawing them lower. The goal will be formation of a flat block of growth, from whose top surface a yearly crop of vertical candles will soar. A nice trick for a dwarf shrub, whose main talent is usually not to soar.


Here's 'Deborah Waxman' displaying her unusual Fall foliage. The needles of the new candles remain green long after the rest have turned orange.


Here's how to grow this dwarf larch. 


Latin Name

Larix laricina 'Deborah Waxman'

Common Name

Dwarf eastern larch, dwarf tamarack


Pinaceae, the Pine family.

What kind of plant is it?

Extremely hardy deciduous conifer.


Zone 1 to Zone 6. 


Dense, taller than wide. New growth is distinctly upright.  

Rate of Growth


Size in ten years

Six to eight feet high, four to six feet wide. Ultimate height is variable, reportedly from eight feet to twenty. Narrower than tall; typically, not more than eight feet wide.


Full and fluffy when in leaf; twiggy and congested when not.

Grown for

its hardiness: Even if you're gardening in Nome, Alaska, 'Deborah Waxman' will survive your Winters unscathed.


its dense fluffy foliage: Because there is only a short distance between whorls of twigs, 'Deborah Waxman' is a congested plant. The needles of one twig can interleave with those of the surrounding twigs, forming a feathery but dense ball of growth. The growth of the full-sized species is contrastingly open, with individual stems discernible even at a distance.


its comparative dwarfness: The straight species of Larix laricina is full size. (The largest known individual is over ninety feet tall and thirty feet wide.) Although, if allowed to grow naturally, 'Deborah Waxman' could exceed twelve or fifteen feet in height, this is still significantly smaller than the species. Deborah functions as a shrub, not a tree.


its tolerance of poor drainage: Larches are a welcome exception to the rule that good drainage is a requirement for maximum hardiness. 

Flowering season

Spring. The cones are only modestly showy, in part, because they are less than an inch high. The females are rosy red, but 'Deborah Waxman' doesn't produce a large enough crop to hold your attention at farther than close range. Thanks to their pollen, the males are yellow and even less showy.

Color combinations

The blue-green needles go with anything. The small reddish cones are not numerous enough to limit partner plants: They develop on second- and third-year twigs, anyway, so are soon obscured by the new season's growth. The bright orange color of the Fall foliage doesn't mean that other intense colors need be eschewed, even those (such as pink or rose) that would be an obvious discord in Summer: Fall is the season where the brightness of the garden in advance of the somber chill of Winter should be maximized. Before that drastic loss of color, any combinations and intensities of color can be, not just forgiven, but celebrated.    

Plant partners

Many of the details of 'Deborah Waxman'—the blue-green needles, dense irregular habit, need for sun as well as water—are so specific that they readily suggest distinct possibilities for plant partners: foliage of contrasting size, colors that harmonize or contrast with blue, need for sun and water. In the extremes of each, this means moisture-loving plants with huge foliage that is burgundy, yellow, or cream. Easy! Rodgersia, Petasites, Arum italicum or, if the larch is large enough to cast a bit of shade on its east or north side, Hosta. Happily, all four of these are hardy at least to Zone 5, so can accompany 'Deborah Waxman' throughout both of the comparatively mild zones—5 and 6—of her hardiness range. Rodgersia and Petasites come in forms with burgundy foliage, whereas Hosta and the Arum are unsurpassed at variegation that might include cream or yellow.


I'm experimenting with training a scandent shrub with numerous small colorful leaves into my 'Deborah Waxman'; I'll thin or prune back my Cotoneaster horizontalis 'Variegatum' so it can explore the larch's canopy without growing large enough to begin shading out portions of it. Cotoneaster will not tolerate overly-moist ground, but both it and the larch will thrive in my garden's heavy soil because they are sited in a slightly elevated location.

Where to use it in your garden

Combine its requirement for full sun with its medium (but not truly dwarf) stature, and you have a specimen for the middle of a bed. If farther back, it would be more likely to be shaded by the larger plants to the rear, and if farther forward, it would block the plants in the middle. Surround with plants that are smaller, especially at the south and west.


Full sun; Larix doesn't like shade. Almost any soil that doesn't dry out. Although moisture-retentive but reasonably draining soils are recommended, in the wild, eastern larch is comfortable with soils and sites that are soggy or even submerged in Winter, and prone to poor drainage the rest of the year.

How to handle it

Plant in Spring or Fall; ensure sufficient water for establishment. Larix doesn't tolerate drought and, so, should be planted only in soils that are moisture retentive. If your climate and topography combine to keep the soil moist year round, the soil itself can be almost anything from sand to clay. 


No formative or maintenance pruning is needed if 'Deborah Waxman' is allowed to grow free-range. However, growth is so dense that debris can build up in the interior of the shrub, be it fallen needles or, if the shrub is sited in a public venue, the occasional plastic bag or soda can. It's worth it to pay an annual visit to the base of the shrub, after the needles have fallen and the shrub's full architecture is revealed. Wearing long sleeves and light-weight gloves so that you don't become scratched, reach into the heart of the branches and clean out the accumulation. The Winter show of the shrub will be greatly enhanced.


Alternatively, you could thin the branches so that the canopy is less able to retain debris. Eastern larch is extraordinarily hardy, so there's no need to time your pruning so that new growth has time to mature before Winter's arrival. It's easiest to prune in the Winter, when the lack of needles reveals the branches fully.

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

As is typical for deciduous conifers (which, in addition to Larix, includes Metasequoia and Taxodium), pruning is tolerated far better than for most evergreen conifers. With the exception of Taxus, Cephalotaxus, and Cunninghamia, which can be reduced even to stumps only to resprout directly from even the oldest wood, conifers normally are unable to produce new growth below the lowest green shoot of a given stem.


Larches, then, can be planted with the expectation of being able to grow them as a pruned specimen. You could, therefore, form them into hedges. If using 'Deborah Waxman', plant two feet apart, and prune in Fall, as the needles are adopting their Fall color. Then the hedge will retain its clean lines until growth resumes in the Spring.


Because the needles of the new growth retain their green coloring several weeks after the needles of older growth have changed into their Fall orange, you could grow 'Deborah Waxman' specifically to highlight them. The new stems are strikingly vertical, so prune to create a flat surface of older growth from which they can (literally) arise each season. The top plane of a hedge is one such surface. If you prune just the sides of the hedge earlier in the Fall, you'll remove the new and still-green candles there, and your hedge will have a green mohawk. Prune the top of the hedge anytime after the green needles have turned orange and fallen.


Another option is the one I have chosen, to prune a shrub to a low base, eventually wide and flat, from which the vertical new stems will emerge each Spring. As with the mohawked hedge, prune in late Fall, after the candles have turned orange and then dropped their needles. Given that I started my 'Deborah Waxman' on this pathway long after planting, it will take some years for the annual pruning to result in the low, dense "ottoman" of permanent branches from which the annual crop of candles will emerge. Thanks to deciduous conifers' unusual ability to sprout from dormant leaf buds even near the base of major limbs, I'm confident that formation of the ottoman will occur.


Yet a third option would be to remove all the low branches, to expose multiple trunks and create a "poodle" topiary. Yearly pruning of each head will transform it into a smaller horizontal surface from which the candles can arise.   


Larix laricina is a species that requires a cold Winter, and detests a sweltering Summer even if the Winter to come would, otherwise, be sufficiently cold. For example, the species isn't happy in St. Louis, whose Zone 6 Winters are cold enough but whose Summers are too hot. But the tree thrives here in southern New England: Even though the near-Zone 7 Winters are a bit milder, the Summers aren't as hot as those farther south, or in the interior of the continent.


The Japanese larch, Larix kaempferi, is shifted a bit towards warmth year-round: It is cold-hardy "only" to Zone 4, instead of the literally-Arctic Zone 1 tolerance of L. laricina. Plus, it tolerates the swelter of Summers in Zone 7. Conceivably, L. kaempferi could thrive in Atlanta, whereas L. laricina is unlikely to survive south of Philadelphia.     


More and more are appearing. The needles of 'Blue Sparkler' are distinctly glaucous; the habit is dwarf and mounding. 'Steuben' has green foliage, and, at two to four feet, is much dwarfer than 'Deborah Waxman'. 'Newport Beauty' is dwarfer still, to a foot tall and two feet wide in ten years. 'Nash Pendula' is strongly weeping but can be staked upright, in which case it might grow ten feet tall in a decade. An 'Aurea' has been reported, but I can't locate details, let alone a source. 


On-line as well as at specialty retailers.


By grafting.

Native habitat

Larix laricina is broadly native to northern North America, from northern Pennsylvania to Illinois and Minnesota, and north to the Arctic coast of Quebec. 'Deborah Waxman' was discovered by her late husband, noted conifer breeder Sid Waxman, in Connecticut.

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