Autumn in Northern Minnesota brings a riot of color, from russet red and burnt umber to the unmistakable smoky gold of the area’s abundant tamarack trees. Found mainly in forest swamps, the tamarack is coniferous, or cone-bearing, and resembles other evergreens. But because this tree is also part of the only genus (Larix) that has needles AND is deciduous, it sheds its needles every fall. Just before they drop for the winter, the needles turn a beautiful golden color, creating a striking contrast to fall foliage.
The name “tamarack,” commonly called the Eastern, American, Red or Black Larch, comes from takmahak and Hackmatack, which is an Abenaki word for “wood used for snowshoes.” The Chippewa (or Ojibway/Ojibwe) word for tamarack is muckigwatig, meaning “swamp tree.”
Part of the Environment
Although the tree can be found in stands of its own, it is commonly in mixed stands with black spruce, northern white-cedar, black ash, red maple, eastern white pine and/or paper birch. Tamarack is habitat for songbirds, as well as the great gray owl and its small mammal prey. One of the smaller conifer species, tamarack grow to about 20 feet, with a narrow pyramidal form. The dark, reddish-gray flaky bark resembles Black Spruce, which the pale green needles are soft and short (about an inch long) and grow in brush-like tufts on small knobby spurs along each twig.
A Tree of Legend
Native American tribes have stories that describe the unusual, needle-shedding tree. Legend holds that, long ago, a flock of migrating birds encountered a brutal winter storm while flying south. They asked the majestic tamarack if they could roost in its branches to shelter from the great winds and snow. Being one of the most beautiful trees in the forest, the tamarack was somewhat vain and spent the summer months admiring its reflection in nearby streams and lakes. Because of this vanity, the tamarack denied the birds a place to hide from the winter storm, claiming it was already resting for the season and couldn’t be disturbed. Mother Nature witnessed this exchange and was not amused. To teach the tamarack a lesson, she forced the tree to lose the soft needles that kept it warm through the Northern winters. Eventually, the tamarack adapted to its new reality by becoming smaller, yet stronger.
Tamarack has been used through the centuries to make a variety of things. Early Indians made a tea made from the bark as treatment for a variety of ailments including jaundice and rheumatisms. The leaves or needles were used for headaches and dysentery, and its thinner roots for thread to sew canoes. Later, the wood was used for runners for dogsleds and old-school snowshoes, as well as pulp for paper, house frames, goose hunting decoys and even railroad ties.
It’s not uncommon for the smoky gold color of fall tamaracks to be mistaken for diseased or dead trees. But rather than lifeless, the tamarack is a vibrant, vivid part of the Rainy Lake landscape.