Larix laricina

Tamarack

Tamarack branch with cones
Photo courtesy Wisconsin State Herbarium and Kenneth J. Sytsma

Flora, fauna, earth, and sky...
The natural history of the northwoods


Name:

  • Larix, from the Latin for larch
  • laricina, from the Latin for larch
  • Common Name, from the Native American word Hackmatack
  • Other common names include Eastern Larch, Alaskan Larch, American Larch, Tamarack Larch, Hackmatack, tamarac, épinette rouge, violon (Qué), mélèze laricin, mélèze d'Amerique (FR), mýralerki (IS)

Taxonomy:

  • Kingdom Plantae, the Plants
    • Division Coniferophyta, the Conifers
      • Class Pinopsida
        • Order Pinales
          • Family Pinaceae, the Pines, Spruce, and Firs
            • Genus Larix - 10 species of deciduous, coniferous trees of cool, temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, 3 native to North America.
  • Taxonomic Serial Number: 183412
  • Also known as Pinus laricina, Larix alaskensis
  • Widely distributed species with considerable genetic variation.

Description:

  • A small to medium-sized, deciduous conifer, with a sparse, open, narrow, conical crown, to 50'-75' high.
  • Leaves flat ¾"-1" needles in clusters of 10-20 on dwarf twigs, light green turning yellow in fall.
  • Stem
    • Trunk straight, to 14"-20" diameter, occasionally larger.
    • Branches whorled, horizontal or slightly ascending. Self-pruning; by 25-30 years trunks generally clear of branches for half their length or more.
      • Twigs slender, orange-brown, smooth, with numerous short, spur branches.
      • Buds rounded, dark red with loose scales.
    • Bark thin, smooth, and grey when young, becoming thick, rough,reddish brown, and scaly; inner layer red-purple.
  • Roots shallow (to 18") and spreading wider than the tree is high.
  • Flowers monoecious
    • Males yellowish, small and round in clusters near branch tips
    • Females reddish brown, numerous scales, egg shaped, appearing in May
  • Fruit a small, erect, egg-shaped cone, ½"-¾" , reddish-brown (becoming brown with age), usually on curved stalks and persisting through winter.
  • Seed with bodies 2mm-3mm, wings 4mm-6mm.
  • Age expectancy about 180 years; older trees are known.

Identification:

  • Identifiable as the only deciduous conifer of the region. Known in the short summer by its short, soft needles and tiny cones.
  • Distinguished from spruces and firs by its short soft needles in clusters.
  • Field Marks
    • Short, soft deciduous needles
    • Small egg-shaped cones

Distribution:

  • Alaska to Newfoundlland, south to British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Minnesota, Wisconsin, northern Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

Habitat:

  • Cold, wet/moist, poorly drained sites such as swamps, bogs, and muskeg; stream, lake, and swamp edges; and occasionally uplands. Boreal forests in wet, poorly drained sphagnum bogs and muskegs, also on moist upland mineral soils; It thrives on acidic, poorly drained soils and does not tolerate warmer climates or dry substrates
  • Soils most commonly wet/moist organic soils, such as sphagnum or woody peat, especially nutrient-poor, acid peatlands (pH 4.3-5.8).
  • Most common on peatlands; actually grows best on well-drained loamy soils along streams, lakes, and seeps, and on mineral soils with a shallow organic overlay. Uncommon on these sites in the southern portion of its range because of competition from other trees.
  • Shade intolerant; tends to cast light shade and have a dense undergrowth of shrubs.
  • Succeeded by other conifers as peat firms up; on poorly drained sites by Black Spruce (Picea mariana); on rich sites by Black Spruce, followed by Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea), White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis), and eventually swamp hardwoods.
  • Pioneer species; often first tree to invade open bogs and burned peatlands; first tree to pioneer floating sphagnum mats.
  • Phenology: Minnesota
    • Buds begin to swell early to late April
    • Needles begin to emerge mid-April to mid-May
    • Flowering late April to early May
    • Seedfall begins early September; nearly complete by late October
    • Needles shed mid-September to mid-October
  • Insects: Larch Sawfly most destructive pest with periodic epidemics defoliating stands over large areas and killing many trees. (Trees die after 6-9 years of heavy defoliation.) Larch Casebearer also cause extensive mortality in some areas. Spruce Budworm, Larch Bud Moth, Spruce Spider Mite, Larch Shoot Moth, and several bark beetles also infest Tamarack but seldom cause serious injury.
  • Disease and rust resistant.

Fire:

  • Killed easily due to thin bark and shallow roots.
  • Seeds have no endosperm to protect them from high temperatures so are usually destroyed by fire.
  • Cones not necessarily destroyed by summer fires, but immature seeds will not ripen on fire-killed trees.
  • Regeneration dependent on seed from surviving trees. Pockets in boggy/swampy areas often escape burning; provide seed for postfire recovery. Because seed is dispersed over short distances, is not well adapted to rapid reseeding of large burns.
  • Burned organic surfaces favor seedling establishment. Within a few years reproduction is often localized; centered around areas of surviving trees.

Associates:

History:

  • During the last Ice Age, a part of the vast White Spruce forest which covered the Great Plains, just south of the windswept tundra bordering the great ice sheets. One of the earliest species, along with spruce, to follow the retreating ice northward.
  • Native Americans used the roots for cordage, the wood for arrow shafts, and the bark for medicine. Roots were used by Ojibwe for sewing the edges of canoes and making woven bags.
  • Early Americans used the soft needles for stuffing pillows and mattresses and used the roots of large trees for ship building. Widely used in wooden ships, for timbers, planking, and to join ribs to deck timbers.
  • Inner bark was used to treat melancholy.

Uses:

  • Wood medium to fine texture, with silvery cast and an oily feel, lacking distinctive odor or taste. Sapwood white and narrow (less than 1" wide); heartwood yellow to russet brown. Intermediate in strength, stiffness, and hardness while moderately high in shock resistance. Specific Gravity .49 green to .53 dry.
  • Wood generally works well, but may have a blunting effect on tools. It has a tendency to split when nailed, is low in paint retention, and is difficult to penetrate with preservatives. Rated moderately resistant to heartwood decay.
  • Not a major commercial timber species, used primarily for pulpwood in the US.
  • Because the wood is heavy, durable, and decay-resistant, it is also used for posts, poles, mine timbers, and railroad ties and, less commonly, for rough lumber, fuelwood, boxes, and crates.
  • Although fast growing under ideal circumstances, it is not widely grown commercially because of its susceptibility to insect damage and disease.
  • The bark tannin has been used for tanning leather.
  • Sometimes planted as an ornamental.

Reproduction:

  • Reproduces by seed and vegetatively by layering.
  • Seed Production begins at about 15 years in open stands; 35-40 years in closed stands. Large quantities usually not produced until 40 years of age. Best cone crops from 50-150 year old open stands, with individual trees sometimes producing as many as 20,000 cones in a good year. Good seed crops produced every 3-6 years.
  • Seed Dispersal in fall over a relatively short time period, beginning about September 1st in Minnesota with about 98% having fallen by October 31. Primarily wind dispersed, but red squirrels spread some. Most wind-dispersed seeds fall within two tree heights of parent tree.
  • Seed loss due to small mammals (mice, voles, shrews) consuming large quantities of seed off the ground, destroying up to half of seed crop. Seeds on the ground susceptible to bacteria and fungi. Only about 4%-5% of seed that reaches ground germinates.
  • Seed Viability only about 1 year after dispersal.
  • Germination from 30%-60%. Seeds require a moist but unsaturated substrate, prefering warm, moist mineral or organic soil free from competing vegetation. Slow-growing sphagnum mosses also provide a good seedbed, as they tend to remain moist. In open swampy habitats, seedlings are often found on sphagnum mosses.
  • Seedlings intolerant of shade and flooding; surviving but a few years in shade, mere weeks when partially submerged.
  • Layering a dominant mode of reproduction at the northern limit of range; uncommon in southern range but can occur when when lower branches become covered with litter or fast-growing mosses.
  • Can produce root sprouts up to 30' from parent tree.

Propagation:

  • By seed, sown at depth of about ¼". Does not exhibit dormancy and can be planted in spring or fall without stratification.
  • Easily propagated by cuttings taken from young trees.

Cultivation:

  • Hardy to USDA Zone 3 (average minimum annual temperature -40ºF)
  • Cultural Requirements
    • Full sun to partial shade.
    • Soil poorly drained to well drained; high in organic matter, pH 4.8-7.5.
    • Wet to medium moisture.
  • Size 15'-25'W x 50'-75'H
  • Growth rate rapid under optimal conditions.
  • Available by mail order from specialty suppliers or at local nurseries.
  • Shade intolerant; should not be planted with fast-growing trees.
  • European Larch (Larix decidua), a non-native species, is also commonly planted in the landscape. It resembles Tamarack, but has drooping branches, longer needles, and bark with large plates.

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Last updated on 18 August, 2004