The Golden Glory of Tamarack Trees
By Sheryl Honig, PhD, Environmental Educator
You may not think of The Ridges’ boreal forest as a destination for viewing fall color. The sandy ridges are home to conifers like hemlock, spruce, balsam fir, and cedar. These conifers are evergreen and don’t explode with color in the fall. But there is one conifer that puts on a brilliant show at the end of every October – the tamarack tree!
Our tamarack tree (larix laricina), also known as Eastern Larch or Hackmatack, is the only deciduous conifer in Wisconsin. It is native to our area and thrives in the harsh boreal forest where the soil is cold, acidic, and poorly drained. The tamarack tree is a pioneer tree (first tree to grow) in bog-like areas, so look for them at the edge of swales. Because tamarack needle clusters are spaced relatively far apart, the tree creates light shade, and supports a habitat of dense undergrowth that includes plants you see at The Ridges, like Labrador Tea, Sedges, and False Solomon Seal. In Wisconsin, most of our tamarack population is second growth, because in the early 1900s there was a severe outbreak of the pest Larch Sawfly, which defoliated huge swaths of tamarack.
During fall, the swales are aglow with tamaracks. These deciduous conifers are about to lose their needles all at once! This is an unusual thing for a conifer to do. Conifers produce needle-like leaves, and in a harsh environment like The Ridges, they must do so efficiently. Most conifer needles stay on the tree for several years, so on any given year, only a small portion of needles turn yellow and fall. Then in the spring, the conifer only has to replace some of its leaves. The tamarack, on the other hand, loses all of its needles every fall. Perhaps it can afford to produce an entirely new crop of leaves each spring because tamarack needles are short and widely spaced.
Tamaracks love our swales because of the cool, moist, acidic, soil. There the tamarack tree produces beautiful small clusters of needles, placed along branches in such a way that each cluster basks in sunlight. Each tamarack needle is a powerhouse of photosynthesis, providing the tree with energy for growth.
The best viewing of the spectacular tamarack may be on Range Light Boardwalk or on Sandy Swale. Come for a Sanctuary hike, cross the wide Sandy Swale, and celebrate the bright golden tamarack needles. Search the forest floor for the soft golden needles and let them sift through your fingers. When the needles are all on the ground, the trees will look knobby and barren until spring when tiny clusters of neon green needles burst forth again, ready to work for the summer!