Roy Lukes: The Smoky Gold Tamaracks

Typical of the oaks, there is a Red Oak near our front yard that is clinging on to it leaves tenaciously. I look at one leaf being twirled round and round by the wind and wonder how long it can be subjected to such constant stress before it finally comes loose and falls to the ground.

Suddenly one does come off and sails downward in much the same fashion as a paper airplane. Few trees, in my estimation, produce dried leaves with better “loft time” when they fall than the Northern Red Oak.

Someday just for the fun of it I am going to organize a leaf sailing contest, or picnic, in early November. We’ll each take our entries to the top of the tall observation tower, such as the one at Potawatomi State Park, and like runners starting a race, drop our leaves on signal. The object will be to see whose leaves require the longest time to reach the ground. In other words, the last one to the reach the ground, or the finish line, will be the winner. (Why must the fastest always be the winner?)

There is another tree that has been colored to perfection and is just now beginning to gracefully drop its leaves (or needles), the American Tamarack. Their magnificent “smoky gold” performance being staged now would be quite insignificant if many of the deciduous trees, such as the maples, birches and ashes, would also be at their peak of fall color. Fortunately the Tamaracks pretty much have the entire state to themselves, front and center.

The American Tamarack needles turn a brilliant gold before dropping off in November. Photo by Roy Lukes.

The American Tamarack needles turn a brilliant gold before dropping off in November. Photo by Roy Lukes.

Many call them Larches even though they are distinctly different in several ways than the European Larch and the Western (U.S.) Larch. The American Indians, particularly those of the great Algonquian nation, referred to them as “Hackmatacks.” No one seems to know the derivation of the word tamarack. In fact Webster’s Third International Dictionary simply says, “origin unknown,” while The American Heritage Dictionary says it is from Algonquian. I prefer to call them Tamaracks because the word sounds a little like Hackmatack. The Tamarack swamps and bogs in Wisconsin of years ago must have been very impressive. A terrible invasion and infestation, perhaps from the north, of the Larch Sawfly (Pristophora ericksonii) between 1900 and 1910 killed millions of Wisconsin and neighboring state Tamaracks. We are admiring the considerably smaller second generation trees today.

What were the dimensions of those big mature “Hackmatacks” at the turn of the century? Well, today’s record in Wisconsin is about 9½ feet in circumference (at 4½ feet above the ground) and 85 feet tall. The national record, growing in Maine, is 12 feet three inches around and stands 92 feet tall.

I think back fondly to my high school days in Kewaunee and to one of the football and basketball stars whom everyone called “Tamarack,” usually “Tam” for short. The qualities of Tamarack wood are: heavy, hard, very strong, coarse-grained, and unusually durable. Every one of those characteristics fit “Tamarack” to a “T”!

It was Miss Emma Toft who advised me, when I began heating my house (the old Upper Rangelight Residence at the Ridges Sanctuary) with a wood stove, to never burn Tamarack in the old cast iron “Queen.” Burns much too hot, she said, and will in time warp and ruin the stove grates.

The cone of an American Tamarack is quite small. Photo by Roy Lukes.

The cone of an American Tamarack is quite small. Photo by Roy Lukes.

Look for Black Spruces (Picea mariana) wherever Tamaracks grow. They are true partners of the swamps and bogs. Both do quite well in cold wet habitats, and neither can stand shade from other trees. In fact the Tamarack doesn’t even like to be crowded by its own kind.

The American Tamarack, Larix laricina is considered to be the most northern growing conifer on this continent, growing north in Mackenzie to the Arctic Circle, around 67 degrees N. latitude, and thriving there by the light of the midnight sun.

Its counterpart in Asia, Larix siberica, produces the most northern coniferous forest in the entire world in Siberia at 72 degrees N. latitude. Talk about being hardy. This is approximately the same latitude as the very northern tip of Alaska.

Notice that I said coniferous as opposed to evergreen. The last living evergreen tree on this continent is the Black Spruce, not quite as far north as the Tamarack.

A close inspection of tamarack needles on a tree shows that they grow from tiny knobs or butts called “short shoots.” By mid-November the needles will have fallen, leaving the trees naked, genuine deciduous conifers. The other two in the world are the Bald Cypress and Dawn Redwood.

The Tamarack is said to reach its pinnacle of perfection north of Lake Winnipeg in Canada. The site still is on my “Must See” list for future years, along with the high valleys and lower mountain slopes between 2,000 and 7,000 feet, of northern Montana and Idaho where the tallest Larches in the world grow, the Western Larch, Larix occidentalis (of the western world).

I can’t admire a stand of golden Tamaracks on a sunny November day without getting the feeling that they are phosphorescent, that they actually glow from their own power source. The brilliant swamp I most enjoy each fall is seen from what I call a “shunpike” at least 125 feet above the glorious Tamaracks. It’s one of those lonely roads not to be advertised for fear that it would soon lose its charm and beauty because of bumper-to-bumper crowds.

Autumn’s finale is reaching its zenith, and, lucky for all of us, it is occurring in the wetlands, the areas least likely to be developed, where mosquitos reign supreme through the warmer months. Fortunately good roads traverse some of them. You simply must go out and find them! Head for the swamps and fill your eyes with gold!

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