The Smoky Gold Tamarack

Charlotte and I, along with our friends, the Lysne’s, just returned from a trip to Decorah, IA to visit with friends and especially to tour the famous Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. Our route back home took us through the cranberry bog area southwest of Wisconsin Rapids where gorgeous golden Tamaracks were reaching their pinnacle of fall color nearby.

Now is the time to be thrilled to the most beautiful assemblage of golden decorated steeples in all the world, the spectacular finale of the autumn tree coloring. A special mosquito-free place to view the American Tamaracks in late October is in a bog. In fact they belong to that society to which I am staunchly attached, the bog plant society. Fortunately there are several roadside displays, such as along State Highway 57 north of Baileys Harbor, from which this golden show can be seen. By the way, these beautiful trees are shade-intolerant and require a lot of sun for proper growth.

Tamarack cones.

Native Algonquin Indians called the tree “hackmatack” while the Indians of our region referred to the highly useful tree as “muckigwa’tig” and used its smaller roots to sew canoe bark together. Its tiny root fibers were fashioned into very durable bags.

Plant nurseries of the U.S. rarely sell American Tamaracks. Instead they offer the European Larch, a conspicuously different species, much better adapted to drier sites. Chances are good that the specimen you buy will be a hybrid, the Dunkeld Larch. Years ago many thousands of European Larches were planted along the banks of the Tay River that drains the Grampian Highlands of central Scotland. As so frequently happens most of them were killed by diseases and especially insect pests.

Some years later Japanese Larches were introduced to the Tay River area, near the Dunkeld Cathedral, and did quite well. The most important natural phenomenon, however, was the development of a hybrid between European and Japanese Larches, referred to as the Dunkeld Larch. Frequently, through natural or controlled plant breeding, some of the weakest features are lost, while a new union of the strongest features makes the hybrid more disease and insect resistant.

We have a Japanese Larch, around 25 feet tall, growing near our garden which is doing very nicely and puts on a glorious golden show each fall. A good many people, knowing both the European Larch and the American Tamarack, claim the Larch is the more beautiful of the two. I will strongly dispute that! The Tamaracks are magnificent in their true habitat, frequented by few people, and suit me just fine.

A row of golden Tamaracks at the edge of a Ridges Sanctuary swale.

Related to the American Tamarack is the Western Larch, Larix occidentalis, a very valuable timber tree of northeastern Washington, northern Idaho and northwestern Montana. This towering tree ranks near the top of all American conifers for construction lumber. Specimens up to seven feet in diameter and 175 feet tall will have clear trunks (no branches) of 60 – 100 feet. Hopefully some of you have enjoyed in late fall, as Charlotte and I did several years ago, driving through the famous Lolo Pass of western Montana, heading west into Idaho and thrilling to the towering golden Western Larches, a never-to-be-forgotten experience.

The only Tamaracks I remember as a boy, growing up in Kewaunee, were those inhabiting the Albrecht’s Swamp along the Kewaunee River north of town, one of my most favorite places to explore. Most of them had been killed by the devastating invasion of the Tamarack Sawfly into the Upper Midwest around 1910. That terrible onslaught virtually eliminated old growth Tamarack stands in eastern North America. So highly durable is the wood of these trees that the dead, gaunt skeletons of Tamaracks often remain standing for decades in bogs. Today we admire second growth Tamaracks seldom more than 90 – 100 years old.

What were the dimensions of some of those big mature “hackmatacks” at the turn of the century? Well, today’s record in Wisconsin is about 9.5 feet in circumference and 85 feet tall. The national record, growing in Maine, is a little over 12 feet around and stands 92 feet tall.

The Tamarack, growing as straight as a ship’s mast, is the only deciduous conifer native to this part of the country. Bald Cypresses of the South and Dawn Redwoods of the West also possess this strange quality of bearing cones and dropping their needles at the end of the growing season.

Golden Tamaracks against a deep blue sky

It was Emma Toft who advised me a long time ago, when I began heating my house with wood, to never burn Tamarack in the old cast iron “Queen” kitchen wood stove. “Burns much too hot,” she warned, “and will in time warp and ruin the stove grates.”

The American Tamarack, Larix laricina (lair-a-SY-na) is considered to be the most northern growing deciduous conifer on this continent, extending north in Mackenzie to the Arctic Circle, around 67 degrees N. Latitude, and thriving there by the light of the midnight sun. Notice I said deciduous conifer as opposed to evergreen. The northernmost growing 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 in clusters from tiny knobs or butts called “short shoots.” The soft, flexible, rubbery needles range from three-eighths to three-quarters of an inch long. The longest tend to be at the top of the tufts. The largest clusters contain around 35 needles. By the way, needles are single on the new and lengthening twigs. By mid-November the golden needles will have fallen leaving the trees naked, genuine deciduous conifers.

It is while admiring a stand of smoky gold Tamaracks on a sunny November day that I get the feeling of their being phosphorescent, that they actually glow from their own power source. Autumn’s finale is reaching its zenith and, lucky for all of us, it is occurring in the swamps, the areas least likely to be developed, where mosquitoes reign supreme throughout the warm months.

Head for the swamps and fill your eyes and hearts with gold!