I had one great, and correct guess on this week’s Mystery Photo. The answer is indeed Larix laricina, alternately called the American Larch, Hackmatack, or, most commonly here in Wisconsin, the Tamarack. In writing this post, I just found out that “tamarack” is an Algonquin word meaning “wood for snowshoes.”
The most interesting thing about the Tamarack is that it is a deciduous conifer – it looses its needles each fall and replaces them in the spring. What you saw in Tuesday’s photo in an example of a twig “leafing out” this spring. These early trees are easy to identify, because of the way they seem to glow in the sunlight with their tiny, light-green clumps of needles. Looking closely, you’ll see that they even sprout needles from the trunk! Once summer hits,however, the tamarack’s color does not stand out quite as sharply from the other species around it.
It is still relatively easy to identify then, though, primarily because it grows in fairly specific areas. While the tamarack is capable of growing in many soil types and in extremely (to moderately) cold regions, it is usually found in fairly moist, even wet areas. If you find yourself in a bog and there is one lone tree, there is a decent chance that it is a tamarack. It may also be a black spruce, but the two are not difficult to tell apart. Tamaracks are among the first species to invade an open area – they help to initiate the succession of an open grassland to forest, and thus could be termed an “early-successional species.” As such, they do not do well at all in shade, will not germinate in their own shade, and are rarely found in stands of other trees, other than on the very edge. Because they tend to grow in more open areas, and don’t grow their needles until part-way through the spring, they also usually have healthy undergrowth around them – a great place to look for pitcher plants and other exciting bog species! In the autumn, their needles turn a consistent yellow color, and they stand out sharply against the vareigated maples, aspens, and oaks around them, adding to the rainbow of “fall colors.”
If you see a tamarack, consider yourself lucky – it means you’re in a special place!