The curtain has come down on the fall show that the majority of “leaf peepers” look forward to, a show they will sometimes drive hundreds of miles on fall color tours to see. The reds and oranges of maples and the yellows of birch and aspen have now been blasted by wind, pelted by rain and snow, and most are sodden and in the first stage of decomposition on the forest floor. Few oaks match the brightness of the “big three,” but they will continue to fall—sometimes well into winter—as the last holdouts among the leaf-bearing trees.
I’m wowed as much as the next person by that kind of leaf color, so brilliant that it almost overpowers the senses. Earlier in the fall, my wife and I would compare notes as those colors began to appear along the roads we regularly drive, providing one another a heads-up so we’d not miss the full palette of Nature’s fall masterpiece.
But there’s also a fall color sideshow that many people miss, due mostly to factors of place and time. It’s a one-tree show, put on by the lesser known and too often under-appreciated tamarack. Deer and grouse hunters, and others whose recreations take them into the wilder and more undisturbed places in Minnesota’s northern counties, are among the most likely to find themselves where tamaracks are part of the forest community, and the last act in the fall color show.
The golden glow of tamaracks does not come from broad, thin leaves, but from needles that in shape and appearance have more in common with Minnesota’s spruce or balsam fir. But unlike those trees, or the white or red pines, the tamarack—a member of the larch family, actually—lose all their needles at once, and thus are not “ever-green,” as are most conifers, which replace their needles gradually.
The needles of the pines typically turn a rusty orange-brown when they reach the end of their useful life. But the tamarack’s needles turn a handsome golden color that rivals the yellows of birch and aspen. Even more than that, a tamarack stand viewed from a distance appears to give off a glow. Perhaps it’s a function of its needle structure, spiraling around the branches like the bristles on a bottle brush, and reflecting light at many angles. But it’s not necessary to know the physics or the optics to see that this glow is something special to the tamarack.
Tamaracks are not found just anywhere, but usually thrive where few other trees seem able to. These are places where they “get their feet wet,” or very close to. In fact, many of the places tamaracks grow would be classified as bogs, which are former shallow ponds or wetlands that over the centuries have accumulated enough organic matter from season upon season of decay to form an acidic soil we call peat, substantial enough to host the tamarack.
In some parts of the world, peat is harvested and burned for heating and cooking, just as Minnesota’s Native Americans and European settlers burned wood. There is energy stored in peat, the result of many centuries of bog plants converting the sun’s energy into organic matter in leaves and stems and flowers. This energy is stored, and released in burning by those who harvest it. In some places—Ireland, for example—peat is even used to generate electricity.
Just as some people mature under difficult circumstances and develop a resilience and character unlike those whose lives have been easy, tamaracks are resilient, too. They typically grow slowly in cold, acidic soil, are close-grained and resinous, and therefore are able to resist decay more than most other tree species.
Sigurd Olson, the wilderness advocate more responsible than anyone else for the preservation of our “canoe country,” admired the tamarack and sang its praises in his book The Singing Wilderness. He wrote that the tamarack “burns with a fierce crackling and a constant barrage of spitting sparks. Here are character and individuality, a release of the cold acidity of the swamps where it was grown, a final flaunting of the energy stored under bitter conditions of existence.”
Why has the tamarack evolved the habit of dropping all its needles at once, while our more common evergreen conifers do not? If there is an evolutionary advantage in doing so, it’s not been fully explained. Some have pointed out that the bald cypress—which grows in similarly wet conditions in the Southeast, and in the southern reaches of the Mississippi River drainage—also drops its needles all at once with the change of the seasons. Perhaps they have more in common than we know.
Once the tamarack’s needles fall, as they’re doing even while you are reading this, the tree will appear thoroughly dead throughout the winter. But in spring we’ll see the return of its feathery clumps of bright green, delicate needles, to begin another round of the tamarack’s unique life cycle.
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