Wondernose: What tree has needles and cones like an evergreen, yet sheds its leaves in the fall?

by Rebecca Martin | Nov 1, 2023 | 0 comments

Tamarack trees with frost
Tamarack trees. Photo © Chloe7992|Dreamstime.com.

Tamarack! You answer promptly, Wondernose, and you are correct. Another name, larch, would have been equally correct. Larch is the name used mostly on the other side of the Atlantic, but here in North America we mostly speak of tamaracks.

These trees are some of the hardiest on the continent. They’re commonly found in low, boggy areas, but they’ll grow on hillsides too, especially in the northern areas. Tamaracks are found from Labrador to Alaska. Farther north you can find larches too, but they will be little more than shrubs. Since the tamarack is a tree of cooler areas, it is mostly not found farther south than Pennsylvania.

Tamaracks take up to forty years to mature. Some grow as tall as 100 feet (30 m), though mostly they’re 60 to 80 feet (20-25 m) high. Like most conifers, tamaracks grow in a pyramid shape. On the whole, tamaracks have a narrower shape than the other pines. (That’s right, Wondernose, the tamaracks are considered a type of pine tree.)

Lots of people like to plant tamaracks for ornamental purposes in their yards. In a way, I find that surprising. After all, a tamarack doesn’t look very nice in the wintertime. It resembles nothing more than a dead spruce tree! All its needles are gone, and it stands there bare-branched.

In the spring, however, I can understand why people consider a tamarack ornamental. Those new, soft little needles have a beautiful green color. They grow in tufts out of little “stumps” on the branches. What’s more, if you look closely, you will see that the tamarack actually bears a type of flower. For a while, the entire tree will have a pinkish or reddish glow from these flowers. Eventually, of course, cones develop, and they are bright red at first. Once mature, the cones are about an inch (2.5 cm) long and chestnut brown in color. Interestingly, the cones remain on the trees long after the needles have fallen.

Besides for ornamental purposes, is the tamarack a useful tree? Well, you can certainly cut it into lumber, but the wood is fairly coarse-grained. In British Columbia is found a variety known as western larch. These tall tamaracks actually resemble the famous Douglas fir. Their wood is strong, hard, and heavy. It’s used for telephone poles, mine timbers, railroad ties, and ship construction. So, the western larch has commercial importance, even though the eastern varieties do not.

However, I mustn’t forget to tell you that North American natives used to have an important function for the eastern tamaracks—their roots, anyway. The roots are so tough that the natives liked to use them to bind their canoes.
There is also a variety known as the European larch, which has been planted extensively on our continent. This European variety has a more grayish bark; the bark of our native varieties could actually be called orange in color. From the European larch can be drawn a resin that is used to make turpentine.

Wondernose, if you want to identify a tamarack, think first of all about the tree’s narrow, pyramidal shape. Then take a closer look at the needles and notice that they grow in tufts. Finally, the rough, scaly orangish bark can also help with identification.

Did you know that there’s still another name for this tree besides larch and tamarack? You haven’t heard of it, you say. Well, it’s a rather fascinating name—hackmatack. Try asking your friends whether they’ve ever seen a hackmatack tree!

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