Exploring The Last Green Valley: The unique and beautiful tamarack tree

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The season of dazzling hillsides ablaze with vivid, colorful, autumnal foliage is all but over. There may be three more weeks before the winter solstice, but already most of our trees are showing their bare, skeletal branches, foretelling the approaching season of cold. At this writing I see only oaks and beech still holding their brown and light tan leaves as I look out my window. The hard rain and strong winds of Nov. 12 brought many of the remaining leaves to the ground.

One of the more remarkable, though perhaps lesser appreciated trees that presents exceptional fall foliage is the tamarack, also known as American larch, Larix laricina. I was reminded of this last week when I encountered a hillside stand of tamarack trees; in full sun its incandescent, golden-yellow foliage literally set the hillside alight in brilliant color.

Bill Reid
Bill Reid

The first time I remember seeing a tamarack was when I was at Boy Scout summer camp in New Hampshire. I was familiar with white pine and hemlock trees that grew near the house where I grew up, but this tree with its tufts of small and soft needles was unknown to me. Our scout leader said it was a tamarack and though it is a conifer, it drops its needles like a deciduous tree in winter. Since then, I have come to appreciate this tree and look for it on forest and woods rambles.

There are several sources I look to for information about our North American trees. “A Countryman’s Woods,” by Hal Borland is a favorite and here is how he describes the tamarack tree.

“The tamarack, or hackmatack as some call it, and its relatives are our only deciduous conifer. It sheds all its needles every autumn. The needles are only about an inch long. In the spring they are bright golden-yellow-green, in summer a warm blue-green, darker than the pines, and rich golden tan in the autumn. In spring, just before the new needles appear, the tamaracks are aglow with blossoms, the male flowers golden yellow, the female flowers bright red with green tips, all of them very small. The female flowers mature into tiny cones, no more than three-quarters of an inch long, which stay on the tree all winter, shedding seeds. Tamaracks grow very tall and slender, sometimes as much as ninety feet high with a trunk diameter of two feet at most.”

From Borland and other sources, I discovered that the tamarack grows farther north than any other American tree species. Here in The Last Green Valley we are at the southern end of its range, but it reaches north into the Arctic Circle. The wood is heavy and durable and has been used for railroad ties, telephone poles and fenceposts. The word tamarack comes from the Algonquian word akemantak meaning wood used for making snowshoes. Native Americans also used the rootlets of the tamarack to sew birch bark together in their making of canoes.

The fine, feathery needles of tamarack trees turn a golden color in autumn and drop, like other deciduous trees.
The fine, feathery needles of tamarack trees turn a golden color in autumn and drop, like other deciduous trees.

In our region I have seen large stands of tamarack on upland hills, however over most of its range it prefers wet boggy land, especially old silted-up beaver ponds while the soil is still moist and all but impossible to walk. You will find them in Goodwin State Forest and Connecticut Audubon’s Trailwood property, both in Hampton, and along Interstate 395 between Thompson and Oxford, Mass.

Donald Culross Peattie, in his book “A Natural History of North American Trees” also describes the tamarack as going farther north than any other tree species in North America. Here is how he describes the tree in spring. His word “crisps” references the fact that the tamarack looks like it is a dead tree in the winter.

“Then when spring comes to the North Woods, with that apologetic rush and will to please… these same trees that one thought were but ‘crisps’ begin, soon after the wild geese have gone over and the ice in the beaver ponds is melted, to put forth an unexpected, subtle bloom. The flowers are followed in a few weeks by the renewing foliage for the larches are the only conifers that drop their needles in autumn and renew them again each spring. And there is no more delicate charm in the North Woods than the moment when the soft, pale green needles first begin to clothe the military sternness of the larch. So fine is that foliage, and so oddly clustered in sparse tufts, that Tamarack has the distinction among our trees of giving the least shade. The northern sunlight reaches right to the bottom of a Tamarack grove.”

Our foliage season is all but past and only a few oaks and beeches hang on, and the tamarack as well has completed its annual cycle. This winter you may notice a tall and straight-looking conifer bare of needles and looking “crisp” and dead. Perhaps it is actually our native tamarack, waiting for the ice to leave the beaver pond and the wild geese to return to show the early subtle bloom of flower, followed by soft tufts of blue-green needles.

We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. Each season, and every day of every week provides us with a golden opportunity to get outdoors and discover our rich natural and cultural resources, like the unique and beautiful tamarack.

Information for this column was gleaned from Reading the Forested Landscape by Tom Wessells, A Natural History of North American Trees by Donald Culross Peattie, A Countryman’s Woods by Hal Borland, and the Kaufman Guide to Nature of New England.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at 860-774-3300 or bill@tlgv.org.

This article originally appeared on The Bulletin: Exploring The Last Green Valley: The unique and beautiful tamarack tree

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