The tamarack is a truly remarkable tree. A tree species that will only grow in wet soil, with deciduous needles and bark that really resembles birch bark, it is truly something to behold.
Tamaracks are able to withstand temperatures as long as -85 degrees Fahrenheit. They are relatives of the European larch, and their wood goes into the creation of railroad ties and snowshoes!
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The more you learn about trees, the more you start to learn how many nicknames they usually have. The tamarack tree, for example, also goes by hackmatack, eastern larch, black larch, red larch, and probably the most familiarly, the American larch.
The word tamarack is derived from the Algonquin word akemantak which means “wood used for snowshoes”. Much of the uses of the tamarack tree come from First Nations traditions, like using bark for medicinal purposes and using the wood for snowshoe making.
The tamarack tree is a deciduous conifer (we’ll touch more on that in a little bit) that is part of the genus Larix (the scientific term for a larch) and the panacea botanical family. This is why it gets the nickname “American larch”, which is slightly odd, considering most stands are in Canada.
Tamaracks are also pioneer trees, meaning that they are one of the first trees to populate an area where there has been natural devastation. This is hugely helpful in re-establishing a healthy forest system, but it is also helpful in maintaining a large population of tamarack trees.
What do Tamarack Trees Look Like?
Because the tamarack tree prefers to grow in soils that are moist or even wet, they have root systems that grow in shallow soil. Never usually growing deeper than 1 meter into the earth, the roots will grow more laterally and in a wide-spreading manner.
Tamarack trees are considered as being medium-sized in more southern regions and will grow to be between 10 and 20 meters tall, with a trunk that hovers around 24 inches in diameter. However, in extremely cold climates, they will usually stick around being no more than 5 meters in height.
The branches of tamarack will grow in a narrow pyramidal shape. The branches will grow horizontally and slightly upward, with the longest branches growing at the base of the tree, and they slowly become shorter as they reach the tip.
Tamarack bark is a unique color and is light pinkish-gray that appears as a red color as it flakes off. The bark flakes off in small pieces in mature trees, whereas a young tree will be completely smooth for the first few years of life.
Tamarack trees possess leaves that are needle-like. They are a light bluish-green color that is quite short, and they turn a bright yellow in autumn right before they fall off. When they fall, they reveal pale pinkish-brown shoots and tamarack twigs that remain bare until the spring when new needles take their place. They grow in a spiral along with long shoots that protrude from the branches in dense clusters.
The cones of the tamarack tree are the smallest of any larch species and possess around 20 seed scales. They are bright red when they first emerge, then eventually turn a dull brown as the cone matures. Once it is fully mature, it will release tamarack seedlings about 6 months after it has been pollinated.
How do Tamarack Trees Reproduce?
Now that we know what the cones look like on a tamarack tree, it may be easier to understand how they reproduce. Tamarack trees are monoecious, meaning that they possess both male sexual characteristics (pollen cones) and female sexual characteristics (seed cones).
Male cones are yellow and will grow from branchlets that are 1-2 years old, and will grow in groups of 2-3. The female cones resemble small pink roses, and they both have short needles that grow at their bases.
Because tamaracks possess both genders of reproduction characteristics, they are able to be wind-pollinated. This happens when the wind picks up the pollen present in male cones, and spreads it to the female cones.
The cones will release the tamarack seed about 6 months after pollination, and these are called gymnosperm seeds. This means that the seedlings are exposed to the air, or naked in other words, and are contained in globular ovule cones.
Is the Tamarack Deciduous or Coniferous?
The tamarack is part of a unique category of the tree, and it is both deciduous and coniferous, or in other words, a deciduous conifer.
Firstly, a deciduous tree is a tree that sheds its leaves seasonally. It does the because it is preparing for the cold winter months. Since trees usually photosynthesize through their leaves, when they drop, that means that the tree goes dormant.
This happens because, in the winter, the sun does not give off enough energy to allow efficient photosynthesis. Once spring arrives, the leaves will grow back, and trees will come out of dormancy.
A coniferous tree is a tree that possess usually cones or needles, and they more commonly do not shed their foliage in preparation for the winter months. This is why the tamarack is unique, because it possesses both cones and needles, and the cones (and some of the needles) will drop seasonally.
Where do Tamarack Trees Grow?
The tamarack tree is native to Canada. It grows naturally all over eastern Yukon, Inuvik, Newfoundland, and the Northwest Territories. There are also stands that occur in certain parts of the United States, including Minnesota, and West Virginia, but the largest population occurs in Alaska.
They will commonly be found in areas that have very waterlogged soils, including bogs, fens, swamp, muskegs, and other lowland areas.
What are the Growing Conditions of the Tamarack Tree?
The tamarack tree is probably the most incredible for its ability to grow in extremely cold temperatures. The same species of tree can grow in Minnesota, where it hovers around 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and in the Northwest Territories, that can sometimes reach a baffling -85 degrees Fahrenheit.
The main feature that the tamarack prefers in its soils, is water content. They truly love to grow in soils that are so moist to the point of being waterlogged. These wet soils can range in organic soils from sphagnum peat to woody peat, or sphagnum moss.
They will also grow in soils with varying textures, from coarse sand to dense clay, proving that texture is not a limiting growing characteristic for the tamarack tree.
The regions that the tamarack tree grows in, most commonly experience precipitation in the form of snow. The earth is usually where the tree obtains its moisture. However, the tree has proven to be intolerant of flooding — which isn’t a completely uncommon occurrence considering the large beaver population in tamarack regions.
Tamaracks are completely intolerant of shade, and will usually fail if they are subjected to growing in areas where there is lots of competition for forest canopy. They must be part of the overstory of the forest.
What is the Forest Ecology of the Tamarack Tree?
It seems as though the tamarack tree enjoys being part of a community. They are the first tree to populate an area after a forest fire, and they tend to be the first to grow in the bog-shrub stage of forest evolution.
Tamaracks can be found in pure stands in the boreal regions of Canada and northern Minnesota, and they exist in mixed stands in the United States and the maritime provinces of Canada.
In the mixed stands, they are associated with the following species:
- black spruce (Picea Mariana)
- balsam fir (abies balsamea)
- white spruce (Picea glauca)
- quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides)
- white cedar (thuja occidentalis)
- black ash (Fraxinus nigra)
- red maple (Acer rubrum)
- bald cypress (taxodium distichum)
In Alaska, they grow alongside the following species:
- American elm (Ulmus Americana)
- balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera)
- jack pine (Pinus banksiana)
- paper birch (Betula papyrifera)
- Kenia birch (Betula papyrifera var. kenaica)
- yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis)
What are the Damaging Agents for the Tamarack Tree?
First and foremost, due to the thin bark of tamarack trees, they are highly susceptible to fire damage. In older stands, they tend to be slightly more resilient, and luckily most populations of tamaracks exist in soils that are very waterlogged, where the fire is not easily spread.
Tamarack trees are also susceptible to strong winds and are known to become easily uprooted by wind storms. Because they grow in moist soils, their roots will grow shallowly in the earth, making it more vulnerable to uprooting.
Additionally, though they do love being in moist soil, ironically enough they are not able to survive flooding. This isn’t completely uncommon, because in many of the regions where tamaracks grow, beaver populations also tend to thrive.
The following insects and beetles don’t have incredibly devastating consequences for tamarack populations, they have suffered from losses over the years. Infestations usually occur once or twice every decade, making it so that the population can recover.
- larch sawfly (pristiphora erichsonii)
- larch casebearer (coleophora laricella)
- spruce budworm (choristoneura fumiferana)
- larch bud moth (zeriaphera improbana)
- eastern larch beetle (dendroctonus simplex)
- spruce spider mite (oligonychus ununguis)
- larch shoot moth (argyresthia laricella)
If all of that wasn’t enough, the tamarack also has to deal with 3 kinds of fungus. All of these damaging agents just go to show how tough the tamarack tree really is.
- Larch canker caused by the lachnellula willkommi fungus – this is a pathogen that was introduced to North America in 1980 that causes larch cankers
- Leaf rust caused by the melampsora medusae fungus – this pathogen causes leaf rust and leaf spots that will eventually start to infect branches and sicken the tree
- Needle cast fungus caused by the hypodermella laricis fungus – this pathogen causes needles to drop early on larch trees
How are Tamarack Trees Used?
The main uses of the tamarack tree come from First Nations Traditions. The wood of the tamarack is both durable and flexible when cut into thin strips, making it ideal for basket weaving and snowshoe making. The natural grooves in the wood also go into creating the “knees” (natural curves in wood pieces) of boats. Tamarack wood is also used in making pulpwood, rough lumber, fuelwood, posts, and poles.
The bark of tamarack trees has also been used traditionally for its medicinal properties. The outer bark has been used to help relieve arthritis, colds, and general aches and pains. The inner bark has been used to help tree infected wounds, frostbite, boils, and poultice.
In cold regions that aren’t able to host vary many varieties of plants or trees, the tamarack is an attractive enough tree to be planted as an ornamental tree, because it is able to withstand cold temperatures and remain lovely.
Because the tree is capable of being so small without any trouble, tamaracks are also a popular choice in the art of bonsai, or in the making of dwarf cultivars.
Food for Animals
There is much wildlife that relies on tamarack trees as a helpful meal in the harsh, winter months of the north. Many species used the protective tamarack branches as nesting places because their needles provide a helpful barrier.
There are many species that will eat inner bark and seeds as well, including porcupines, showshoe hares, and red squirrels. In the summer months when birds return to these regions, white-throated sparrows, common yellowthroats, Nashville warblers, and song sparrows will take advantage of tamarack seeds as well.
How do you identify a tamarack tree?
The easiest way to identify tamarack is by its bluish-gray bark that peels off in tiny pieces, or by the bluish-green needles that grow in spirals from its branches.
The tamarack also possesses small cones, and it grows in a narrow pyramid shape.
How long do tamarack trees live?
Tamarack trees are relatively short living, and depending on their location, will live to be between 75-100 years.
Are tamarack trees fast-growing?
Tamaracks are very slow-growing trees. This is because they usually live in regions that are very cold and have very long winters. Because of this, they don’t receive enough energy from the sun to grow very tall. Tamarack that is only 1.5 meters tall can be 50 years old!
How tall do tamarack trees get?
Tamaracks are small-medium trees. In warmer regions, they will grow to be between 10 and 15 meters tall, but in colder regions, it is not uncommon for them to stick around being only 5 meters tall.
Why do tamarack needles fall off?
Tamarack is deciduous conifers, meaning that they possess both cones and needles, but they fall off seasonally.
How long are the needles on a tamarack tree?
The needles on tamarack trees are a bluish-green color and are between 2 and 5 inches in length. The needles that grow at the base of tamarack cones are much shorter, never usually exceeding more than 1 inch.
What distinguishes tamarack from most other conifers?
The tamarack is different from most other conifers because it is also deciduous. Most trees that grow in cold, northern regions are usually evergreen conifers. But the tamarack is a deciduous conifer, meaning that it sheds its needles and cones seasonally.
How many needles per bundle are there in a tamarack tree?
The needles that grow on tamarack trees usually grow in spiral clusters along with long shoots, and each cluster usually contains between 10 and 20 needles.
What is the difference between a larch tree and a tamarack tree?
The tamarack tree is part of the larch family.
Do tamarack trees change color?
Because the tamarack is a deciduous tree, it will drop its needles. Before that happens, they will fade into a golden yellow color. The deciduous needles will grow back as their natural blue-green.
Is tamarack a softwood or hardwood?
Tamarack wood is considered a hardwood.
Can tamarack trees be planted in the water?
Tamarack trees are completely intolerant to flooding, and should never be planted in the water. It is best to plant tamarack in nutrient-rich soil that is plenty moist.
How deep are tamarack tree roots?
Tamaracks, because they grow in soils that are heavily moist, will have root systems that are very shallow and grow laterally — rather than growing into the deep soil.