Tamarack tree at Boone County Arboretum in Northern Kentucky.
The tamarack is a deciduous conifer with needles for leaves. Tamaracks are narrowly cone shaped trees, growing straight and slender, and typically getting no more than 50-60 ft (15-18 m) tall. However, near Manitoba’s Lake Winnipeg, tamaracks exceeding 100 ft (30 m) in height can be found; in the Yukon, on the other hand, tamaracks rarely exceed 10 ft (3 m) in height. Upper branches are slightly ascending and lower branches long and drooping. Crowded trees are often devoid of branches for half or more of their height. The pale bluish green needles are about 1.5 in (4 cm) long and arranged in loose spirals on the longer shoots and in dense brushlike clumps in whorls on the short spurs that grow off the longer shoots. The cones are egg shaped and less than an inch (2.5 cm) long. Starting out red, the cones turn brown as they mature and release their tiny winged seeds in early winter. Tamaracks stand out among the darker green conifers of the far north because of their paler, sparse and feathery foliage. In autumn the needles turn a clear yellow before falling. In winter, the orange-brown branches, devoid of foliage, contrast with the darker blues and greens of the evergreen spruces and hemlocks.
‘Newport Beauty’ is a rounded dwarf, probably selected from a “witch’s broom.” ‘Aurea’ has golden new growth, and ‘Glauca’ has metallic blue foliage.
Tamarack is a tree of North America’s extreme North Woods. It ranges from The Alaskan Yukon, across Canada to Newfoundland, and as far south as New England, Upstate NY and northern MI, WI and MN. A few outlier stands, left behind by the retreating glaciers of the last Ice Age, persist along the southern border of the main range in IA, IL, OH, WV, PA, NJ, and CN. Tamaracks grow in bogs, muskegs and swamps as well as upland sites from sea level to 4000 ft (1200 m) above sea level. Often a component of mixed stands in the eastern parts of its range, tamarack forms single-species even-age stands in the central and western parts of its range. Approaching the Arctic Circle, the only trees still to be found are willows, black and red spruces, aspens, paper birches and tamaracks.
Tamarack needles resemble those of other conifers but are deciduous, turning yellow in autumn before falling to the ground.
Tamaracks make their best growth under full sun with abundant moisture. Light: Grow tamaracks in full sun. This is, as the foresters say, an intolerant tree. Although seedlings can tolerate a little shade for the first 2-3 years, after that tamaracks can survive only as overstory trees. Moisture: Tamarack is better adapted to moist soils than the other species of larches. It often grows in swampy places, but grows best in better drained, but still moisture retentive, soils. Tamarack tolerates a wide range of soil conditions from sandy to clayey, dry to wet, and acidic to almost limey. Hardiness: USDA Zones 2 -5. Tamarack grows naturally as far north as the very limit of tree growth (the tree line), at the edge of the tundra, and in some areas above the Arctic Circle. Propagation: Sow seed in early spring. Cuttings are difficult to root, but some success can be had with semi-ripe stem tips inserted in sand and misted every few minutes.
The American larch or tamarack makes a fine specimen tree if you live in an area with a very cold climate. Small groves can be especially appealing. The lacy bluish foliage of spring gives way to a darker green in summer and a clear vibrant yellow in autumn. In winter, the naked pinkish to orangeish branches form a loose lattice of compelling interest.
The wood is strong, resistant to decay, and used for railroad ties, posts and boat construction. Native Americans fashioned toboggans from the wood and snowshoes from the slender branches. (The name, tamarack, derives from the Algonquin word for snowshoes.) Fibers from the roots were used to sew canoes and weave strong bags. Decoctions of needles and roots were used for a variety of medicinal purposes. The inner bark is eaten by porcupines, often to such an extent that the trees are severely deformed or even killed. Tamarack is sometimes used for bonsai.
Tamarack is a pioneer species. That is, it is one of the first trees to colonize newly available habitats such as recently burned over areas, the edges of shallow ponds and on quaking bogs as they fill over with vegetation. Intolerant of competition and shade, the tamaracks are eventually replaced by larger, climax species such as spruces and firs.
There are about a dozen species of larches, all native to coniferous forests in cold areas of the Northern Hemisphere. Japanese larch (L. kaempferi) and European larch (L. decidua) are more often found in cultivation than the American species.