The Evergreen That Isn’t

In Latin, the word conifer means “the one that bears cones.” When we think of conifers, generally we think of evergreen trees, though, if my study as a naturalist has taught me anything, it’s that there is always an exception. Interestingly, there is a conifer that does not stay ever green throughout the winter, but drops its needles like a decidous tree.  Actually, this tree crosses the boundary and is classified as a decidous conifer. 

The tamarack (Larix laricina), also known as eastern larch, American larch, and hackmatack, is a cone-bearing tree found across northern North America that turns yellow in the fall before dropping its needle-like leaves. The needles are 0.8-1.2 inches in length and grow in whirls around the stem. To the touch, they are softer and more flexible than those of a spruce. The tamarack has the smallest cones of all the conifers, which grow to only 0.4-0.9 inches long, and it is common to see two year’s worth of cones on the same branch.

Tamarack trees are very wide-spread and can grow in various soil conditions. They are especially prolific in boggy areas. The wood of the tamarack is very hard and rot resistant, in Algonquin, tamarack means “wood used for snow shoes.”  Today, tamarack is mainly used as pulp wood, but also as posts for vineyards, hop beams, and railroad ties. These trees can make good ornamentals in areas with full sun as they are very shade-intolertant. Interestingly, there is also a market for them as bonsai trees.

In the far north, tamarack can withstand extreme temperatures of -60 degrees F without dying. The ability of the tamarack to drop its needles allows it to reduce the snow load it accumulates in the winter, conserve energy that would be expended to keep alive the leaves, and expell waste in the needles as they are dropped.  As a conifer, it also has the advantage of extracellular freezing, which protects the cells during freezing temperatures and allows this tree to survive in extreme conditions.

While it is threatened or endangered in some states, here in the Finger Lakes Regions the tamarack is neither of these things, merely uncommon. I sometimes see tamarack trees along the side of the road where they can get enough sunlight, so while I am out and about for holiday festivities, I will keep my eyes peeled for a naked pine tree.  If I take the time, I might just find that rather than encountering a conifer that couldn’t survive, I have instead found a thriving evergreen that merely isn’t ever green.

gabriellewheeler_profileBy Gabrielle L. Wheeler