Why Tamaracks would not make a good Christmas trees


In the coming weeks, there will be much tooth-gnashing in Wisconsin as indoor conifers begin dropping their needles. But for one common Wisconsin tree, that’s just part of getting ready for winter.

The tamarack, or American larch (Larix larcina), is a cone-bearing tree that to all outward appearances should be evergreen. It sports tufts of short, blue-green needles that spiral around its branches. The tree is common in wet areas, bogs and swamps throughout Canada and the northern tier of United States, including most of Wisconsin. They are large trees reaching 60 feet at maturity.

Tamaracks are extremely cold-hardy and are frequently found in northern forests growing along with red maples, aspens and ash trees in Wisconsin. Along with damp soils, tamaracks require full sun. While they are early colonizers in peat bogs and burned areas, they disappear as soils dry out and other conifers fill in and shade them out.

In late September, tamaracks abandon their masquerade as evergreen trees. Their needles turn yellow, then bronze and drop to the ground leaving bare branches for the winter. We have one of these trees in our neighborhood, and even without needles it’s easy to identify it by the bumps that line the branches. These will produce new green needles (which are modified leaves) in the late winter or early spring.

Although it’s not considered a valuable timber tree today, indigenous people used tamarack wood to make gear like fish traps, snowshoes and dog sleds. The wood is not only tough, but when sliced thinly it’s flexible enough to bend without losing strength. It’s resistant to rot. Early European colonists in Canada and New England picked up the habit of using the tree’s soft needles to stuff pillows and mattresses, and the bark was used medicinally.

Tamarack trees are susceptible to a number of insect pests, and because they favor wet, boggy ground, high winds can topple them. Excess water can also be an issue for the trees — prolonged flooding will kill them.

Although they aren’t common, there are several other conifers that drop their needles. Most are native to the southern areas of China and Indochina. This includes the golden larch, which is a small tree related to pines rather than tamaracks, and several types of cypress. The bald cypress (Taxiodium distichum), however, is native to the U.S. Although the tree is frequently associated with the deep South, it’s hardy in the Midwest. There are several specimens at the Morton arboretum in Illinois.

The Dawn Redwood, a relative of the bald cypress and the giant California sequoias, is another deciduous conifer that is hardy in our zone and less fussy about soil conditions. It was thought to be extinct until living trees were discovered in China in the 1940s. These trees can reach more than 100 feet at maturity. Morton Arboretum also has several of these in its collection. Unlike our native tamarack, the needles on these trees grow in fronds that shed in the autumn. ‘Gold Rush’ is a gold-leafed form. All of the deciduous conifers need full sun and moisture to thrive.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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