By Jim Poling Sr.
Still six weeks to go before the calendar says that autumn is over. But the calendar doesn’t have to click over to Dec. 21 to tell me that.
Tamaracks, non-conformists in our northern forests, tell me when fall is done. When their soft green needles turn golden yellow, then light brown, I know that the last, tough resistors to winter have accepted that change is here.
Also known as larch, the tamarack is the toughest tree in the forest, in my humble opinion. Some might vote for the oak, but oaks grow tall and heavy and often lean toward the sun, leaving them susceptible to wind damage.
The tamarack is a trim, small to medium tree growing to a height of 10 to 20 metres, smaller the farther north they appear. It has a slim, conical figure with a narrow trunk.
The most unusual thing about tamaracks is that they are both deciduous – broad-leaf trees that shed their leaves annually – and coniferous, commonly called evergreens.
The tamarack is an evergreen, except when it’s not. It is not late in the fall when its needles turn colour and fall, leaving the tree dark grey and barren, in sharp contrast to its neighbouring evergreens.
Some other evergreens do drop their needles, but gradually and not so noticeably. White pine, for instance, shed some needles every two or three years, while spruce do it every three to five years.
Although it is different – an oddball among evergreens – the tamarack lives free of the harassment humans often suffer if they tend to be different. It is not mocked or called ugly names. It is not prohibited from occupying spaces or doing things that other evergreens do.
Tamarack is classified as a softwood, as other evergreens are, but it is probably the hardest, and most useful, of the softwoods. It is strong and long-lasting, yet flexible in thin strips.
The Indigenous people were quick to figure that out, using flexible but durable tamarack strips for snowshoe frames. They also used tamarack wood, roots and twigs in building canoes and toboggans.
The Cree used tamarack twigs in making goose decoys, a practice that has become an art form.
The tree also was an important source of medicine for Indigenous people. They used its inner and outer bark to treat everything from wounds, frostbite and hemorrhoids to colds, arthritis and various aches and pains.
They passed all that knowledge along to European settlers who made significant use of the rot-resistant wood. The newcomers used tamarack poles as fence posts, railroad ties and to build corduroy roads.
It also was used in horse stables because it resisted abrasion and kicking damage.
It never was, and still isn’t, a major commercial timber species. It is harvested mainly as pulpwood, which is used to make paper, cardboard and various types of fibreboard. It also is used for poles, posts and general rough lumber.
Tamaracks also are well used by wildlife. Birds love the small seeds found inside the tree’s cones. So do squirrels and mice. Porcupines love the bark.
Tamaracks are not easily distinguishable during the summer. They hang out with black spruce and other evergreens and you have to get close enough to see their narrow trunks and the slender and short needles that grow in soft clusters of 15 to 20.
They are more identifiable, if you look closely, in early spring. Bright new needles appear in blue-green clusters that deepen in colour as summer progresses. The tamaracks also provide other spring beauty when their tiny, egg-shaped cones, retained throughout the winter, appear yellow and reddish or maroon.
But the tamaracks really come into their own in autumn, offering late season elegance when other leaves have fallen or have turned a wrinkled brown. They provide us a last touch of nature’s beauty in a bleakness about to be overcome by winter’s whiteness.
That golden elegance has been fading fast in the last few days. But it’s been wonderful to have as a finale to what has been a pretty fine year for fall colours.