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Nature Nut: In fall, tamaracks are the gold standard of evergreens

November 11, 2018

I’ve probably biked or driven by it hundreds of times over the years, dozens at least in the past six months.

But it was not until recently that I took note of this large tamarack on Seventh Street Northwest, just across from Samaritan Bethany. I’d seen a few others around town over the years, but this one is definitely old and stately.

Tamarack trees first came to my attention decades ago on fishing-opener trips to northern Minnesota. But at that time of year they did not stand out with their golden-colored needles like they do now.

I also think I recall a large tamarack on Eastwood Road when we lived there. And, years later at Quarry Hill, I recall seeing some tamarack giants displaying their fall splendor on the east hillside, now just north of the new Prairie House.

It is this characteristic of tamaracks, shedding all their needles every fall, that make them different from most, maybe all other cone-bearing trees, which are also called evergreens.

Just as a side note, other evergreens such as pines and spruces, do shed needles, but not all at once. It is often quite easy to see the needles that are being shed each fall, as they also turn golden, although not as spectacular looking as most tamaracks in full gold.

Tamaracks belong in the group of larch trees, with a variety of different larch found worldwide. Tamarack is the more common name given to the native American larch, which I assume is what I have seen up north as well as around Rochester, including along some of the city bike trails.

Gerten’s Garden Center in Inver Grove Heights also sells a weeping larch, which only grows to a few feet but still sheds its golden needles yearly.

Tamaracks are a relatively hardy tree, although besides shade they also like moist soils, allowing them to grow in boggy, swampy areas.

And, while they can withstand extreme cold — 60 to 80 below in tundra regions — they do not do well in warmer climates. Therefore, we are on the southern edge of their range in the U.S., although on some maps it extends to northern Indiana.

Growing in wet soils works for tamaracks, as the wood is relatively rot-resistant and, although not a big part of the building industry, it is often used for posts, poles, rough lumber and fuel. Tamaracks are also a favored wood for bonsai tree growers.

Tamarack cones, which I could see on the East Park trees, are very small, at less than an inch long. And, tamarack needles are also quite small and delicate, probably because they lose them every year.

After seeing the big one on Seventh Street, along with a couple smaller ones in nearby Cooke Park, I decided to try revisiting the ones at Quarry Hill. Although viewing from the bike trail across the valley, they still looked stately, hovering above all the trees adjacent to them — a characteristic I later read about them as not liking to be in the shade of other trees.

Leaving Quarry Hill, I decided to keep my eyes open for other tamaracks. Oddly enough, not five minutes away, along the south side of nearby East Park, I spotted a row of large specimens I’d probably seen before but not paid much attention to.

So, after my local tamarack discoveries, I thought I’d give past fishing-trip host and former Mayo math teacher Dan Laakso a call to see how they looked in the swamps almost 300 miles from Rochester. Unfortunately, Dan told me, they had “pretty much already lost their needles,” but he did have some earlier pictures to send me.

I think you may still yet be able to see these golden beauties here on Seventh Street, at Quarry Hill or East Park, and maybe other locations around Rochester I am not familiar with, but would enjoy hearing about.

And if you happen to have a trip up north scheduled for early fall next year, make sure to take in the expanses of these golden beauties in bogs and swamps.

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