The woods have been changing. As mornings begin with heavy frost and autumn gales blast their way through every weekend or so, many deciduous trees have dropped their leaves to settle in for the long winter. A few of the alders and beeches are still trying to eke out a couple more weeks of valuable photosynthesis, and the oaks will hold their faded russet leaves a little while longer. The green of the conifers has become just about the only available jolt of color in a forest quickly moving to winter monochrome. Except for one conifer who does things a little differently – the tamarack.
Or is it a larch? Larix laricina is commonly called by a number of different names around here –besides larch and tamarack, you can earn your Maine merit badge by calling it “hackmatack.” Bonus points if it’s just “hack.” As in, “Found a nice stand of hack back in the heath.” As the only deciduous conifer in this part of the world, tamarack needles turn a beautiful golden color and drop off in the fall. Groups of tamaracks in a winter bog look like so many spindly dead trees until spring comes and they light up again in vibrant new green. Because of this annual replacement, tamarack needles are the softest foliage around. Trees like the balsam fir and red spruce hold onto their needles for up to 10 years, so they must be built tough to last. But the tamarack, new every year, feels silky smooth.
The wood is extremely versatile and rot resistant, making it ideal for fence posts, boat framing, and other damp situations. In fact, the name “hackmatack” is derived from an Abenaki word meaning “wood used for snowshoes.” It was also utilized by indigenous makers for toboggans and canoe parts. Boatbuilders still treasure hackmatack “knees” (cut from the base of the tree where the horizontal rootstock turns into vertical trunk) for stems and ribs. The boatyard where I worked for a decade had a pile of rough knees stacked in a damp corner of a back building, ready for use. Stored that way, they’ll last forever. And when our friends from the Charpentiers sans Frontières gave us their list of timbers they needed to hew the frame of our blacksmith shop, they requested tamarack for the sills.
Some of the more revered uses of the tamarack are medicinal. Besides the needles, which are rich in vitamin C, the inner bark is a prolific source of arabinogalactans, recently in vogue as a prebiotic supplement and immune booster. But the use of the tree for both healing and building goes back long before recorded history.