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This oddball of the forest is a valuable resource

Tamarack bark contains tannin, can aid healing and is ideal for snowshoes, says outdoor columnist David Hawke
2018011008 Tamaracks
The tamarack tree is versatile and can be used to heal and to craft snowshoe forms. David Hawke/OrilliaMatters

The annual autumn colour party was short-lived this year, with the local maple trees avoiding the garish crimsons and oranges, instead sporting a somber yellow cast before expiring their leaves to the ground. For sure, some years are a visual blast and the celebration can last a couple weeks, but 2018 has been a bit of a bust, locally at least.

However, Nature has a way of balancing things and while the maples had their chance and blew it, the tamarack trees are going big time this year. Or at least they are being noticed moreso since the hardwoods were a disappointment.

Tamarack, also known as larch in some circles, is that odd-ball of the conifer tree world, in that unlike its cone-bearing cousins it is not evergreen. As with the more popular hardwoods, when autumn arrives the leaves (or in this case needles) are closed down for the season. Without chlorophyll to keep things green coloured, the base colour of yellow becomes visible. And, wow, does it shine through!

 A drive down any country road at this time of year, especially if the road dips down to a wetland swamp, will easily reveal these trees that shyly grew in a forest of green over the summer. Now they stand out and rock it with their bold statements of gold and amber!

There seems to be lots of information available as to "how" these needles are shed, but little insight as to "why".  Best background story I found was based on a purportedly Native legend that tells of a group of trees that were quite vain, always looking at their reflections on the surface of the nearby waters.

One fall migration the cold came early and a flock of birds asked the tamaracks if they could take shelter within the boughs of the clustered trees. But permission was denied, as the tamaracks didn't want the birds pooping on their beautiful branches.

The birds moved on, hopefully finding a way to complete their journey. But the Creator had noticed the tamaracks cruel behaviour, and as punishment decreed that all their beautiful needles would fall off every winter, leaving them to stand naked in the cold of winter. The bright show of colour at the end of autumn was allowed to mark the end of the season.

All of which makes sense to me except for the part about the birds asking to take shelter within the tamarack's branches... you'd think any fool bird would prefer the better cover provided by cedar or spruce! Anyway, that's what I read.

For the last few thousand years tamarack has repopulated the area in a post-glacier era, and has been utilized by humans for a wide range of uses. Medicine for healing bruises and intestinal disorders has been obtained from the bark and sap, and the wood itself makes for creating snowshoe frames.

Indeed the original word for tamarack was hackmatack, which was derived from akemantak which in translation means 'wood for snowshoes'.

The early colonists (I have to say 'colonists' now, as 'settlers' is politically incorrect) used lumber from tamarack whenever water was an issue. The slow growth of the tree means the cells are small of tight-packed, which means that water has difficulty soaking in which means that a tamarack log laying in the water will lay there a very long time before rot can set in.

Within the bark of these conifer trees is an abundance of a chemical called tannin. If tannin is added to water and piece of fresh cow hide is plunked in, the hide will be preserved; thus tannin is used in tanneries when hides were tanned and turned into leather.

Many local settlers, er colonists, supplemented their winter income by cutting down tamarack and sending the striped bark by the railcar load to Huntsville for use in the leather-making industry.

Landscapers have been known to recommend tamarack as an interesting addition to your yard's look. Just be sure that you have a fairly wet hole in your yard as these trees like to keep their roots wet.

As I write this it is snowing, a wet sticky kind of snow, the kind of snow that pulls the last coloured leaved from their stems. So get outside for a couple of hours, take a wander or a drive and see if you can catch the end of the party before the colour is lost for another year.