Tamaracks Revisited

Tamarack is a gorgeous late-fall favourite and an answer to the question ‘what tree is both coniferous and deciduous?’.

I love its dichotomy – the way it throws a curve-ball into the learning we gained as kids. Coniferous refers to a tree that is cone-bearing – it reproduces by seeds in a cone structure. Deciduous refers to a tree that loses its leaves in fall, enters dormancy, and revives in spring. Native tamarack (Larix laricina) is both – proving that by strict definition the two groups are not mutually exclusive – mature trees will create lots of little cones and in late fall you will see tamarack needles turn a deep gold before they fall to the ground.

Tamarack is a long-lived tree growing between 10 and 20m and requiring normal to wet ground and full sun exposure. It’s branches have needles that are carried in soft bunches of about 20 and arranged around the stem in a spiral. It is an attractive tree in three seasons with it’s soft chartreuse needles in spring, the deep green needles of summer adorned with tiny bright-red cones, and then the gold of fall. In winter it looks sad and uninspiring – but feeds birds and chipmunks with its tiny rosette cones.

Around this time last year we began planning a spring volunteer planting day. Without it, Altona Forest would not get any trees to help the loss of the ash species to foreign bugs. The question always arises about what trees to add – and it can be a contentious question. In this case, we would be planting what trees TRCA* could source and provide for Altona Forest – only trees available from the TRCA grower.

One of the chief considerations is location. You can’t cheat light conditions – and it’s risky to cheat water conditions when planting trees. The area was along the Summerpark border of the forest – where many ash trees were felled (a result of the Asian invasive emerald ash borer) and invasive dog-strangling vine and buckthorn threatened to make further headway in taking over. What would love these damp conditions, add to the native biodiversity and wildlife of the forest, and be part of the TRCA collection?

The winner was tamarack. Tamarack is a superstar of the larch family that thrives in the vast band of boreal forest that lies to the north of us. This highlights an interesting part of Altona’s location: it is the northern edge of Carolinian Canada – but hosts some species that thrive in the short seasons and thin soils of the boreal forest as well. Tamaracks already exist in Altona Forest small numbers.

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The soft needles of the tamarack

This spring, TRCA provided 30 tamarack trees and the Altona Forest Stewardship Committee invited volunteers to come out and plant them in the muddy and tricky area near the little stream that ends in Summer Park and parallel to the adjacent backyard line. It was a challenging planting for the few intrepid volunteers, but all the tamaracks were planted.

I recently clambered over the deadfall and stumps to revisit the area of the planting. It’s now 5 months after they went into the ground. Two were almost lost in a sea of tall jewelweed and one had to be rescued from a bittersweet nightshade vine that had taken a strangle-hold and bent the tree in half over the summer. Another was similarly bent in half by dog-strangling vine. Maybe we need to keep an eye on these trees for their first couple of years.

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Young tamarack bent in half by a dog-strangling vine

Three tamaracks were granted a special position – in a different location. These three trees were planted in a muddy spot in the north-west corner of Altona Forest where the boardwalk begins and a large stand of ashes have died. They can be easily spotted beside self-guided hike Post 30. It is an area in dire need of new trees – but also an area where any Altona Forest visitor can readily see a tamarack and watch their progress as they grow and change colours with the seasons.

In revisiting these three spring-planted tamaracks, I noted that the damp, muddy conditions combined with no canopy had offered these trees the best conditions in a drought-ravaged summer. They had doubled in size and now stood proudly reaching sky-ward among the fall wildflowers.

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This young tamarack (larch) shows the colour changes and the needles beginning to drop

Watch for their golden show this fall, their chartreuse new needles in spring, and watch them as they grow and mature in our forest. As they become teenagers, they will begin to put out some of their distinctive tiny red cones. Visit the easily visible three at this boardwalk edge in different months and watch their challenges and successes.

It was worth scrambling into the rough and getting mucky to plant them – in fact I wish I had 10 more to plant! I love the tamarack – in all its seasons – and I think you will too.

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*TRCA – Toronto and Region Conservation Authority – is the owner and manager of the Altona Forest on behalf of the City of Pickering. Its funding is indirect through the local municipalities /regions, and in Durham Region (Altona Forest) they don’t receive sufficient funds to add more trees, repair the boardwalks, maintain the trails, or provide services that match those in York, Peel, and Toronto.

Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

About Tamaracks (Ontario)

Tamarack Plant Guide (USDA)

Photos and Distribution Map

About Tamaracks (BC)

Growing Tamaracks – parameters

Tamarack – A tree for the city ?

Tamaracks Revisited ~ © 2016 Natasha G

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