Time of the tamarack

Have you ever seen a stand of golden-needled tamaracks blazing in late afternoon against a dark and brooding sky? Add to this the scent of dry leaves  and the wild song of geese on the wing, and you have a perfect moment to savor in your mind’s eye for as long as you need the memory.  

It will leave its lingering trail to thaw your spirit in its amber afterglow. So much is expected of the maple’s crescendo that the colors of New England in November — oxblood, russet, nutbrown, straw — seem muted and somber. But there is subtle splendor even now, in the time of the tamarack.

It is an unusual name for an unusual tree. Algonquian in origin, it comes to English by way of French Canada where the tamarack persists in the boreal forest even to the Arctic Circle.  The Tamarack ( Larax Laricina)  is the American larch.  

Unique among our region’s native conifers, it is also deciduous.  The soft needles of the tamarack turn a golden orange as the season advances, and a shaft of low angled sunlight really brings out the richness of the color. The horizontal branches remain bare of needles until they revive in Spring, and provide handy if somewhat desolate roosts for raptors.

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Tamaracks like their feet wet, and are often found in moist peat lands and even perched on bog mats.  Their lateral roots were once prized for their durability and natural curves for making the knees of wooden ships. I look for them as I skirt the margins of swamps, or near the base of the hillsides and out in the flats where there are seeps and springs.  They are companions to black spruce in sphagnum bogs, and sometimes mark the limit of tillable ground between field and swamp.

Now is the time to look to the tamaracks, as maples fade and beech leaves curl and tatter.  The oaks are the last to gain the forest canopy and insist on the last word as well, as autumn comes to a close, but tamaracks remind us that the world is not yet bleached of color, and November has its golden hour as well.

Tim Abbott is program director of Housatonic Valley Association’s Litchfield Hills Greenprint. His blog is at greensleeves.typepad.com.

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