Ann Arbor Native: Tamarack, the conifer that dares to be different
Photos by Matt Heumann
In Michigan, Tamarack trees are normally found in wet soils in swamps, bogs and along lake edges. It is a fast-growing pioneer species that may reach a height of 60 feet with an open, pyramidal form spreading to about 25 feet wide. It has thin bark and a shallow root system, so fire is not its friend. Should a decent fire roar through its habitat, the trees would likely be killed and the area would have to be re-populated by airborne seeds blown in from nearby trees that were lucky enough to be missed by the fire. So, if you want to plant one in your yard, try to avoid setting it on fire.
As a member of the pine family (Pinaceae), it has cones and needles, but the needles are much softer than your average pine tree. They are quite short (only about one inch long), form in clusters of about 10-20 off of short spur shoots around and along the tree’s stems and are bright green when they emerge in spring, turning to a golden yellow in fall. Tamaracks are monoecious (both pollen and seed cones appear on one tree) and have seed cones less than two centimeters long. Birds and small mammals get some use out of it, too, for cover, for nesting and for food, although it isn’t a major source of food for any animal, apparently.
Photo by USDA Forest Service - North Central Research Station Archive, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org
Unlike the Eastern Redcedar we talked about last week, the Eastern Larch is much more limited in range. There are three Larix species native to North America, and 10 in the world, but only Larix Laricina is native to Michigan. It is also native in Wisconsin, Minnesota and the northern northeastern United States (plus most of Canada). For a very detailed, scientific discussion of the tree, take a look at the USDA Forest Service Fire Effects Information System (FEIS) web page on tamarack.
As it is a fairly common tree in the northeastern states (including Michigan), it is logical that it provided Native Americans with material for medicine, building materials and other uses. To see some of them, check out the University of Michigan-Dearborn Ethnobotany website.
At my place of employment, they have a section of a seven-inch wide tamarack log with a three-inch hole in the center of it. It is part of the first water system in Detroit. In the 1820s, tamarack logs were cut down in swamps near what is now Mount Clemens and floated down to Detroit. A three-inch hole was drilled in the center, and logs were joined together end to end and buried about three feet deep. It wasn’t a big system, and was replaced in the 1830s by an iron pipe system, but I thought that was pretty cool.
If you want to use tamarack for your landscape, make sure you give it a place with lots of light as it is very intolerant of shade. According to the book "Native Trees, Shrubs and Vines for Urban and Rural America" by Gary L. Hightshoe, it is resistant to salt and soil compaction, so you could put it in your front yard, for a change of pace from the average spruce people like to plant, and enjoy the fall color it provides.
I want to mention a series of seminars being put on by the Washtenaw County Conservation District for homeowners with properties of five acres or less, entitled the “ Backyard Conservation Workshop Series” which will cover a variety of subjects, including soils and soil testing, naturalized landscaping (which I’ll be speaking about), lawn and lawn care, trees and shrubs, backyard ponds, septic systems (not the same thing), composting, wildlife damage and control, backyard wildlife habitat certification and many more. Check out the WCCD's website for more information. Also, the Conservation District is now taking orders for their annual tree and native plant sale. See http://washtenawcd.org/ps/treeplantsale.php.
Get out and walk in a frozen swamp, everyone; enjoy it and see if you can find a dormant larch for yourself in the next month.
Rick is a local landscape architect with a special interest in all things natural, including native plants and the critters that eat them. You can contact him at email@example.com.