The Hardy Tamarack — The Evergreen That Isn't
By Tamia Nelson
December 27, 2011
Every year, as autumn gives way to winter, after the last wavering skein of geese has honked plaintively overhead and the beaver ponds where I paddled lazily in summer are covered with a skim of ice, I turn away from the water and spend as much time as I can among the trees. I'm almost never alone on these excursions. As I make my way through the woods, skirting the soggy fringes of bog and swamp, I often find myself on the receiving end of a brickbat thrown by a querulous red squirrel. Even more often, however, I hear him keeping pace with me, scurrying along some arboreal highway, silent and aloof, effortlessly matching my plodding progress along the ground. Much nearer at hand, chickadees, nuthatches, and brown creepers flit from tree to tree in search of seeds or hapless, half‑frozen grubs. Sometimes these little birds are joined by downy woodpeckers, who probe tirelessly beneath bark for more substantial fare, while every now and then the woods resound to the distant hammer blows of their much larger, crested cousin, the pileated woodpecker.
Yet despite all this activity, it's the trees who emerge as the main characters in the story of my woodland rambles. There are tens of thousands of them in the narrow valley where I most often walk. And every one of these — the quick and the dead alike — plays a vital role in the forest ecology. Each is somebody's home and a refuge in times of danger, as well as a source of food. After years spent crisscrossing the same square mile of land, I know them all, and while it wouldn't occur to me to single out a favorite in the normal course of affairs, if you pressed me I'd probably choose the tamarack, Larix laricina. Some of you will know it as the larch or — though this is now seldom heard — the hackmatack, but I like the sound of "tamarack." And I'm lucky to have a fine example growing in a hedgerow not far from my office window, where I can see it whenever I raise my eyes from my computer display.
Tamaracks are modest trees. Most of the year they blend into the background, looking much like any other conifer, at least to the casual eye. Unless you know them by sight — and their characteristic light‑green foliage does much to set them apart — or see one standing alone in an expanse of bog — this isn't uncommon; tamaracks can thrive in even the wettest places, and they don't like shade — you probably won't take much notice of them during the paddling season. It's only in late autumn, when most of us have already laid up our boats for the year, that the tamarack takes center stage, but once its turn in the footlights comes, the performance is a show‑stopper. This modest conifer has the capacity to surprise even the most jaded woods wanderer. After all, it's …
The Evergreen That Isn't
Confused? Who wouldn't be? Most trees fall into one of two great camps: narrow‑needled conifers ("cone‑bearers") and broad‑leaved deciduous trees. While conifers like the fragrant balsam shed needles from time to time — most lose from one‑third to one‑half of their needles in any given year, contributing to the springy, aromatic duff of the North Woods — healthy individuals never lose all of their needles, all at once. They are, in fact as well as name, evergreen. Deciduous trees, on the other hand, drop all their leaves in autumn, though not before the summer's green raiment is transformed into a tapestry of many hues, from a copper reminiscent of old pennies to sunflower yellow to sanguine scarlet. The resulting riot of color attracts bus‑loads of leaf‑peepers, but the show they're all flocking to see is short‑lived. Winter follows quickly on the heels of fall, and soon the forests of New York, New England, and eastern Canada are transformed into somber studies in brown, gray, and black, and the last of the sunshine tourists have fled to warmer climes. Only the conifers now lend a touch of color to the brooding hills.
Except for the tamaracks, that is. Because, although tamaracks are conifers, they are not ever‑green. Come fall, they shed all of their needles and are soon lost in the gray sameness of the winter woods. There are tamaracks in this photo, for example. Can you find them?
No? Well, don't kick yourself. It's not easy. While tamaracks don't give up their needles quickly — they hang onto them longer than the maples and ashes keep their leaves, longer even than most of the beeches and oaks — they surrender to General Winter just before the first snows blanket the hills. The tamaracks go out in a blaze of glory, though. If you know where to look, there's no missing the fireworks:
The golden sprays of needles shimmer briefly in the light of the late autumn sun. Before long, however, they're ripped from their branches by the first winter storms. Their only legacy? A scattershot dusting of ochre on the forest floor, soon hidden beneath the deepening snow.
I hope I haven't left you with the impression that tamaracks are rare. They're not. And most Canoe Country paddlers have seen them many times, whether or not they realized it. Do you sometimes have trouble telling the trees from the forest? It's not as hard as it seems. In addition to the unmistakable pale‑green foliage — unmistakable once you've schooled yourself to look for it, that is — tamaracks have a characteristic "oblong" profile, with an arrow‑straight trunk and uniformly short side branches. The overall effect of a tamarack "in leaf" has been described as "feathery" or lacy. (One writer even characterized it as "feminine," but then he probably hadn't read Germaine Greer.) Unfortunately, you won't get much help in identifying tamaracks by the company they keep, since they're found in both pure and mixed stands. There is one universal, however: They don't like shade. A tamarack either rises head and shoulders above its near neighbors or it dies.
Here you see two examples: The first (on the left) shows five tamaracks in fall; the second, a stand of trees in early spring. Notice the pale, blue‑green cast of the new foliage. In fact, the leaves (needles) are worth a second look. They grow in clusters from short, woody stubs ("spur shoots"). Come winter, these stubby spurs are all that remain on the tamarack's elastic, gracefully arched limbs (see the left‑hand photo below). Once spring returns, however, infant needles sprout from each stub. As the second photo demonstrates, the new foliage looks a little like a photographer's lens brush:
But the needles soon reach their full length — typically around 1 inch — and splay outward in a spiky cluster. In the first of the photos below, my fingers provide the scale. The second photo illustrates the change in color that comes with the fall. It's quite striking, don't you think?
Seen close up, the tamarack's needle sprays are distinctive. And its cones are equally so. They're small — the largest are less than an inch long — and they cling close to the branches of the parent tree, standing erect on tiny stalks. They're popular with wild creatures, too. Grouse and red squirrels feed on them when they're still on the tree, while rabbits and deer make good use of any that fall.
At first glance, the tamarack's feathery foliage seems sparse, even unhealthy. But appearances can deceive. Make no mistake:
The Tamarack Is a Survivor
For one thing, these hardy little trees — the tallest rise no higher than 60 feet or so, and most are much shorter — laugh at the cold. Tamaracks can be found growing right up the very edge of the treeless northern tundra. I find that surviving temperatures of ‑40 degrees (Fahrenheit or Celsius, take your pick) is plenty hard enough, thank you. But tamaracks flourish in places where it gets much colder than that. They're not fussy about the soil they grow in either, and they don't mind getting their feet wet. Botanist E.H. Ketchledge writes that the "tamarack is one of the very few [trees] that can withstand the roots being completely and permanently submerged." This may be overstating the case, however. I've seen many dead (drowned?) tamaracks in newish beaver flows. Still, there's no doubt that tamaracks thrive on the margins of bogs and in soggy lowlands, places where most other trees are hard‑pressed to gain a foothold.
If you've read this far, you'll have guessed that I find tamaracks beautiful in their own right, and that's certainly the case. But humankind's appreciation of forests and their trees is largely instrumental. So the first question we ask of any forest species is usually …
What Can It Do for Us?
And if there's no answer immediately forthcoming, we label the trees in question "weeds" or "trash" or even, so help me, "nuisances." Then we do our best to manage them out of existence. Happily, the tamarack has been spared this fate. The telephone poles that went up around my parents' house when I was a girl were tamarack trunks, and one of the workmen told me that these made the best poles. He may well have been right. Many of those poles are still standing, as sound today as they were nearly half a century ago.
Boat builders also prized this rot‑resistant wood, shaping tamarack stumps and roots into "hackmatack" knees. Of course, this use is uncommon today — as uncommon as the clinker‑built guideboats that once sported such knees, though not so rare as the snowshoe frames formerly crafted from tamarack splits by the Algonquian peoples of North America. (Wikipedia even suggests that "tamarack" means "wood used for snowshoes," though the Oxford English Dictionary is more cautious, saying only that the word is "a native Indian name.") In any case, tamarack sees most use as pulpwood nowadays, so you may hold a bit of tamarack in your hands when you read your morning paper. This seems a sorry fate for such a hardy tree, however. The wood was once employed in constructing plank roads and making railroad ties, after all. And who knows? If gasoline and asphalt prices continue to rise — and it's a pretty safe bet that they will — railroads may someday regain their prominent place in the North American transportation mix. When that day comes, the tamarack will once again be the sleeping partner of commerce.
So much for questions of economic worth. I value the tamarack mostly for its ecological role as a member of the forest community, as well as for its beauty. When I look at the bare tamaracks standing sentinel in a snowy meadow, or see the first soft green of their new needles in spring, or wonder at the startling sprays of autumn gold on the branches of the tree just outside my office window, I don't see dollar signs. I see life, in all its richness, wonder, and complexity. And I have no doubt which of those two things — money or life — is the more important.
Trees don't get no respect. Or so it often seems, at any rate. Yet few paddlers escape falling under the spell of the forests that fringe their favorite waterways. And I'm no exception. Now that winter has sheathed the local ponds and rivers in ice, I've taken to the woods, where I've been renewing an old friendship with a most unusual resident — the hardy tamarack, the evergreen that isn't. I hope you've enjoyed the outing as much as I have.
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