Tree tuesday: À l’aise with the mélèze

Driving home from east side of Vermont a week ago, it was all I could do not to stop the car to photograph the stunning ocres, yellows and oranges of the tamaracks that were by far the dominant colour in the forest alongside highway 10 and the interstate 91. I can’t promise you that the colour is still there. It may well have pooled in rusty puddles of needles at the foot of these unusual conifers, unusual because they are one of only two conifers (trees with cones), native to North American, that lose their leaves.

Yes, these conifers that turn yellow, then orange, in the fall, then drop their needles are not sickly; they’re just doing what larches do. Larch is the European name for tamarack. Tamarack, or the related name Hackmatack, are likely both derived from the Abenaki work akemantak, meaning a supple wood used for making snowshoes.

The genus Larix, in all of its 12 species, circumnavigates the world within the boreal forest, and is one of the world’s most northerly of trees; in Canada, our native species Larix laricina (mélèze laricin) grows in every province and territory. Within Quebec, this tough conifer makes it all the way to the Arctic ocean. In fact, the tamarack, like the service berry I wrote about two weeks ago, would also have made a good symbol on our flag.

For all its toughness, this tree emanates a fragile grace. Slim and feathery, long branches clad with tufts of needles, varying in number from 15 to 60 per bundle, the tamarack is living proof that delicacy and toughness co-habit happily.

The cone too, the tiny (1 x 1.5 cm) wooden rosebud you see above, conveys the same theme. Remaining on the tree throughout the winter, the cone will help you distinguish our native tamarack from the widely planted Japanese and European larch both of which have larger cones. In the photo below is the European larch, its secondary branches fluffier and more yellow than the two tamaracks on either side. All three grow in a small larch grove in Parc La Fontaine east of École Le Plateau.

While the European and Japanese larches are frequently planted as ornamental trees, the native tamarack is more likely to grow in the wild, in wet, acidic areas such as peat bogs and in muskeg country. However, it also thrives in moist, well-drained soils on the side of the highway where they get lots of sun. The reason it is rarely seen in Montreal may be that it is hard to maintain the degree of acidity preferred by the tamarack. It may also be that a conifer that loses its needles may seem like a wasted conifer to some.

The wood of the tamarack is highly valued due to is resistance to rotting which explains why it is commonly used for bridges, foundations and boat timbers. According to the book Aboriginal Plant Use in Canada’s Northwest Boreal Forest, the inner bark may be used as a poultice to treat cuts, infected wounds and frostbite. Tamarack leaves, twigs, bark and seed are food for wildlife; porcupines are particularly fond of tamarack bark sometimes to the detriment of the tree! Generally the first tree to take root in open bogs and burned peat land, the tamarack’s needles enrich the soil paving the way for other conifers such as black spruce, balsam fir and white cedar.

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