Speculative Biology Sunday: Fruiting Larch

19 Dec

The Fruiting Larch is a frost hardy tree native to the plains of Siberia. It is a medium-size to large deciduous coniferous tree reaching 20-50 m tall, with a trunk up to 1 m diameter. The crown is conic when young, becoming broad with age; the main branches are level to upswept, with the side branches often pendulous. The male and female cones are borne separately on the same tree; pollination is in early spring with the cones taking around 7 months to ripen.
The female cones are consistently reddish to purplish through maturity and don’t harden off like other pine cones. The seed scales stay somewhat swollen and contain relatively high amounts of starch and thus are somewhat palatable, though still taste distinctly of fresh cut pine.
The seeds of the fruiting larch are not dispersed by wind as their ancestors were, but remain firmly attached to the seed scale of the cone. This way the seed is passed through the digestive tract of the birds when the cones are picked apart and eaten and thus spread further than the wind dispersal employed by other conifers.
The fruiting larch has become an important food source for the animals in the coniferous ecosystem. Many birds and mammals feed on the seed scales which ripen at the beginning of autumn and are important for animals building up food reserves before migrating south or going into hibernation.
Most notable of these is Grims Cuckoo, who feed almost exclusively on the cones throughout autumn and will only migrate south once they run out which is usually almost midwinter, making them very important seed distributors.
Fruiting Larch are almost dominant in areas recently cleared by fire or permafrost thaw, but are gradually out-competed by other evergreen conifers over time.



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