Tamarack trees are ablaze in golden yellows now. After a summer innocuously blending in with spruce and fir trees, they are bursting with color. They are particularly striking against a backdrop of evergreens. The photos show Ely-area Tamarack trees this week.
Once the dogsledding season arrives, the tamaracks will be totally barren. Tamaracks are the only conifer in North America that loses all of its needles annually. Speaking of dogsledding, we’ll be relying on fires to keep us warm through the early winter evenings. Losing all of their needles is a good defense mechanism against extreme cold because moisture isn’t lost through the needs, but it may not be so effective against unwary wood gatherers. To the unaccustomed eye, a tamarack in winter can be tricky to distinguish from a dead black spruce.
The tamarack wood is rot-resistant and has many uses. Native Americans used the thin, pliant and tough tamarack roots from trees growing in beaver ponds as lashing to connect pieces of birch bark to make canoes, and for building snowshoes. Native Americans also recognized the tree’s medicinal properties. A compress of the inner bark was used to treat and soothe cuts, infected wounds, frostbite, and boils.
Naturalist John Josselyn wrote in 1672 that “the Turpentine that issueth from the Larch Tree is singularly good to heal wounds, and to draw out the malice… of any ache rubbing the place thereof.” While that sounds intriguing enough, I don’t know anyone who has made turpentine from a northeast Minnesota tamarack. If anyone has that experience, please let me know, and I’ll report more in the blog.
Tamarack thrive in moist to boggy soils, so fall-colors hunters won’t be disappointed by a drive down Highway 1.