Northland Nature: Tamaracks demand our attention in late OctoberA common expression that we heard much of this year was how late the season was. We saw this repeatedly as the winter was reluctant to exit and the April snow showers lingered into May.
A common expression that we heard much of this year was how late the season was. We saw this repeatedly as the winter was reluctant to exit and the April snow showers lingered into May.
Through the next few months, this pattern continued and we collected strawberries up until August, raspberries into September and I even picked a few blackberries in October.
The late spring finally did give way to a summer and heat moved in with temperatures above 90 degrees several times. The cool wet late spring became a hot dry late summer.
Now in the colorful month of October, the weather conditions again affect the timing of the autumn events. The leaf colors of red maple reds and birch yellows of September have lasted into October. Yellows of sugar maples and aspens continue into mid-month and then after a massive leaf drop, the swamps light up as tamaracks add a golden glow to the arboreal colors, again a little later than normal.
Though the show from these conifers of the wetlands is a bit late, it is worth the wait and adds much to the autumn scene.
Indeed, I find it hard to drive on a nearby road without scanning the swamps for these dynamic colors at this time. They seem to be demanding our attention.
Part of the reason that the tamarack glow is so intriguing to us is that it emanates from the wetlands. And while the nearby deciduous trees of the forests have been showing off colors for the last few weeks, the trees in the swamps appeared to be remaining green, until now.
By their very nature, not many trees will grow in the swamps and marshes. Perhaps the most common deciduous trees, the small alders, tend to stay along the edges and they hold green leaves until curling and dropping.
Out in the wetter regions, we are likely to find two kinds of conifers: black spruce and tamarack.
The black spruce will be similar to their upland cousin, the white spruce, and retain their sharp needles throughout the winter.
Tamarack (also called larch), however, differs from all the other regional conifers by dropping its needles, going through the coming winter without needles on the branches. In this way, the tamarack is a coniferous tree that acts like a deciduous tree.
Or to put it in different words, it is a deciduous coniferous tree, an evergreen that is not evergreen.
Apparently, life in the swamp can be demanding on the trees and keeping the needles could cause too much evaporation. It is better to drop the needles in the fall.
This adaptation to the harsh conditions of the wetlands could take place each fall without much of a show and we would hardly notice.
But the trees prepare for the winter by withdrawing green chlorophyll from their leaves (needles). And with the green taken away, the yellow xanthophyll that was present all summer will show up.
Fortunately for us, the needles are numerous and with few other trees to block the view, we are able to see this golden glow as we go through the second half of October.
Pine trees — red, white or jack — went through a bit of a color phase a few weeks ago as about a third of the needles turned yellow and dropped off. Those that stayed will stay green all winter.
Our other conifers, spruces, junipers, cedars, balsams, yews and hemlocks, go through some alterations as well, but continue to be green in the cold.
Not only is the tamarack our only deciduous conifer, it also has a unique arrangement of its needles.
Spruces, junipers, balsams, yews and hemlocks all hold their needles singly on the stems. Pines vary their needle arrangements. The long needles of red pines and the short ones on jack pines are pairs while the needles of the white pines are in groups of five. Tamaracks take this grouping a step further by holding needles in clusters of twenty or more.
Getting a close look at the yellow-gold needles on branches now is also quite a sight. And it explains why now these numerous structures would give such a bright appearance.
Also while looking among these short needles, we’ll find the even shorter cones. Unlike those of white pine, red pine or white spruce, the cones of tamarack are tiny, less than one inch long.
The golden glow show of late October is now upon us and will last until the end of the month.
As I look out on a swamp fully lit up by the dazzling tamarack trees, I see a great reason to live in the Northland.
And with the abundance of swamps in the region, we can go in nearly any direction and see this encore to the leaf color of fall.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o firstname.lastname@example.org.