Wintertime travelers in the far north—Canada's Labrador and beyond—often mistake vast stands of tamarack trees for scarred survivors of fire or disease. Brown and destitute looking, the trees starkly stand out against the snow blanket. Yet, were those same visitors to remain until spring, they would see an entirely different sight.
The tamarack (Larix laricina), you see, unlike all conifers except the bald cypress, looses its needles each fall. Then, in the spring, it replaces them with feathery fragments of light green that give the tree a lacey appearance. And in the most northerly reaches of its range (tamarack grows the farthest north of any tree species) it produces new "leaves" in the faint light of the midnight sun.
But even dressed in summer green, the tamarack offers little shade. With fine, sparsely spaced needles, the tamarack allows sunlight to pierce to its base.
A tree that favors sphagnum bogs and shallow swamps over high, dry land, tamarack was historically sought by Indians. They used its thinner roots for thread to sew their canoes.
When white boat builders came, they looked to the tamarack, too. But instead of thread, they sought knees-those heavier roots with angular bends that made naturally perfect braces for keels.
Because tamarack earned a reputation as tough, rot-resistant wood, it eventually was cut from its home in the bogs for railroad ties, posts, and utility poles. Since the advent of preservative treatment for nearly any wood, though, the hard-to-harvest tamarack has been left to stand alone in the otherwise treeless north.
Illustration: Jim Stevenson