In November at the Unity park, the tamaracks seem to give off their own botanoluminescent light. Photo by Dana Wilde

The tamaracks are turning gold, now. The last transition from fall to edge of winter, beautiful and melancholic.

Tamaracks are the only conifers hereabouts to shed their needles in fall. Others — hemlocks, spruce, fir, cedar — drop a few needles at a time throughout the year. The old white pine blankets the driveway with fragrant brown needles in June. It can keep photosynthesizing whenever it’s warm enough, instead of shutting down to wait for summer. But the tamaracks are anomalously deciduous, not evergreen, and close down for winter like the alders and birches, their neighbors in wet soil.

Most of the Eastern larches, as they’re also known, in the U.S. grow in Maine, in slivers of New Hampshire, and around the Great Lakes. They reach 50- to 60-feet high or more, and live 180 years or so, depending on site conditions. Western larches (Larix occidentalis) can top out at 150 feet and live 300 years or more; some that may be more than 900 years old have been reported in Washington state.

Though not generally as abundant as spruce, beech, fir, yellow birch and some others, tamaracks were widespread in the Dawnland area before Europeans arrived. In fact the word tamarack most likely derives from the Western Abenaki word hackmatack, which seems to come from the word akemantak, meaning “a kind of supple wood used for making snowshoes.” The Penobscot word is mə̀nəhokak. Up here in Euro-American times we call it Eastern larch, black larch, American larch, or Larix laricina to the botanists. In northern Maine it’s sometimes nicknamed juniper, which keeps the scientists up at night because juniper is technically (and practically) a different plant.

The wood is tough and fairly good to burn, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Native Americans used it for arrow shafts, and hollowed out large burls for pots. In Alaska it’s used to make dogsled runners. Wooden boat builders used it to join ribs to deck timbers, as well as for planking. Dawnland Indians have used decoctions made principally from the bark to treat colds and coughs.

More to the point for a backyard naturalist, the tamaracks generate one of the final arboreal signs of the time. While the world closes down in November, beauty knells up through their branches on the edge of bogs and winter. It’s almost a religious paradox. Those gold-needled steeples steering skyward, like a perennial Dome of the Rock in the northeast forest.

The seasons are the foundation stone of reality here, and the woods transduce its light.

 

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His book “A Backyard Book of Spiders in Maine” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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