Saturday, November 17, 2012

Teddy Bear Trees

Of all my favorite months, November is NOT one. It is such a funereal month, filled with farewells – goodbye to warm, sun-ripened tomatoes and fresh lettuce, colorful bouquets of asters and goldenrod, and New England’s  flaming autumn colors.

Our woodlands stand gray and black to face the coming winter. There’s one exception, however, a most unusual tree that is just now turning from green to a warm cinnamon brown.  It’s a tamarack, the only conifer that is deciduous, not evergreen.  You may know the tamarack as a larch, or even a hackamatack, but I never knew it by any name until the year daughter Bridget turned 16 and got her license.

That summer, driving on a back road in Falls Village, Bridget swerved to avoid a little bird, and then looked back (Not via the rear-view mirror) to see if she’d hurt it.  The car knocked down three guide posts, sheared 20 feet of dirt bank and landed in a tamarack tree.

Neither Bridget nor the bird was hurt and that was how I  learned what a tamarack tree looked like.  Such a unique conifer, the only needled tree native to North America that drops its foliage each fall.

Tamarack needles grow like small shaving brushes along the branches and are soft and delicate compared to those of spruce or fir. They may be hard to tell apart from their evergreen cousins in their summer greenery, but now when other deciduous trees have been stripped naked, their needles lose their chlorophyll and become as conspicuous as polo-coated preppies at a nudist colony.

These tufts of needles have turned a soft warm brown and have opened out so that each branch looks like a tiny modern hayrake, making the trees resemble furry teddy bears.  By December their needles have all dropped and the black skeletons left bare give the impression of having been charred by a fire, looking totally dead.

Although tamaracks are most commonly found in swampy areas, they can  live equally well on a dry hillside where they grow very fast, as much as three feet a year.  Along with sumacs and poverty birches, they are often the first trees to appear in open land and are called nurse trees, as they prepare the way for trees needing shade.

After the Mad River dry dam was built just west of Winsted, I watched the open meadow beside Route 44 fill in, first with sumacs and a few popples, then tamaracks.  Eventually white pines moved in, and at this time of year make a spectacular sight of rich green and cinnamon.

Searching for more facts on tamaracks to fill this column, I located an article in a 1926 Antiques Magazine written by Hank’s grandfather describing a variety of products made from tamarack.  The wood is apparently very hard and almost impervious to water, so it is used in ship building and dock pilings.

If you’ve never known about or noticed tamarack trees right now is a good time to spot them, especially on that hillside to the right as you head down into Winsted.  n

Canaan has hardly any tamaracks, but when I drove to Sharon the other day I saw one here and one there.  They've almost lost all their teddy bear look, so you may have to wait until next November to spot one.    Happy Thanksgiving.  


  1. Now I know what those unusual golden not-so-evergreens are. Thank you! November has Thanksgiving to recommend it, a come lately gift after too many dreary gray days. Football fans love November... the rest of us not so much. I had a sister whose birthday was day before Halloween, mine was end of November. She got a red and gold month topped by a pumpkin cake party, I got turkey hash. Will be looking for tamaracks on my Sunday ramble with the dog. Happy Thanksgiving to you too.

  2. Cheer Up! I love turkey hash. btw - great info, Hatsy. I will look kindly on ugly trees henceforth.