Dec 29 2011

The Hardy Tamarack: The Evergreen That Isn’t

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… Read more…