Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 22, 2010

To a Hackmatack and Back

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:51 pm

“Trees are always neighborly kinds of things,” according to a character in one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (The Adventure of the Yellow-faced Man). In this case, a young man was commenting about a thoughtful walk down a tree shaded lane. These particular words have nothing to do with the story and they provide no deep clue upon which the famous detective later pounces. That particular line stuck with me because it was especially poetic. Trees are indeed neighborly things and it is only neighborly to get to know them.

By way of this round-about introduction I wish to present the Tamarack, aka Hackmatack or American Larch, as yet another example of an interesting neighbor. Anyone with so many aliases might easily arouse suspicion as being a mobster or a paid informant. This guy also could also raise a few more red flags by claiming to be a coniferous tree yet shedding his needles every fall like some regular nut tree or something. Well let me tell you, this one’s on the up and up. The names, the needle-shed thing, the cones -they all make this one unique.

Tamaracks are high northern trees of the Canadian taiga whose range barely extends into the United States.  While throughout its vast range it will grow in upland areas, here in S.E. Michigan the tamarack is pretty much restricted to low boggy and wet areas. More often than not, you’ll need boots in order to get close to one, and to get back from visiting one, in the summer. It is a bit easier to call upon this tree in the wintertime thanks to the solid properties of frozen water.  From a distance their conical form betrays their relationship to other coniferous trees, such as the spruces, and they are easy to spot. In fact, they look like dead spruce trees in the winter because Tamaracks shed their short soft needles in the fall. They are deciduous conifers.

Up close, the brown flaky bark looks very much like that found on red pine trees (see here). The naked branches are covered with multiple spurs (see above and here) and clusters of tiny round cones. These woody spurs each support a dense cluster of 10-20 needles during the growing season – giving the summer branch a tufted appearance. The cones, perfect little examples of the conifer craft, are also clustered into neat bundles (see below). Each bears around twenty scales which protect an equal number of tadpole-shaped seeds. Birds such as finches and crossbills are dependent upon these winged morsels to get them through the cold season. It takes a lot of seeds to make a meal (each seed is only about 1/8 in. long) but these trees are prolific and finches have a lot of time on their hands – especially since they are not hindered by constant text messaging or i-phone “apps.” Historically, we humans have asked favors of this tree as well.

Tamarack is a native Algonquin word. The alternate name for this species, Hackmatack, originates from the Abenaki word meaning “snowshoe wood.” To these native dwellers of the forests of N.E. Canada and Maine, the tough flexible wood of the tamarack was ideal for making snowshoe frames. They, like the finches around them, depended upon this tree to get them through the snowy winters. Closer to home, the natural crooks found in the stumps and roots made for strong knee braces for wooden boat building. Nate Quillen, the Rockwood Michigan builder of legendary duck hunting boats during the late 1800’s, always used Tamarack knees to brace his craft. His use puts a whole new spin on the concept of “kneeding” Tamarack wood.

Quillen supposively obtained his Hackmatak knees from a swale just down the road from his shop along the Huron River. As far as I can tell, that stand doesn’t exist anymore but there are plenty of stands in the surrounding counties.  So, don’t you think it would be a nice thing to stop by and visit that Tamarack stand near you? Tell them you don’t want any wood or seeds at the present time, but just wanted to say “hello neighbor.”

1 Comment »

  1. The cones have the appearance of hand-carved wooden flowers. They’re very striking.

    Comment by Joy K. — March 6, 2010 @ 10:49 pm

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