One of the bizarre details of my past is that I starred in a filmstrip for Parks Canada when I was a kid. It was called “The Aspen Curtain” and was all about the various species of trees found in Elk Island National Park. My nine-year-old noodle absorbed all kinds of little facts, one being that tamaracks, though a conifer, are deciduous: they turn gold and shed their needles in the winter.
That little nugget of knowledge was sleeping in the back of my brain when we were given a bunch of cast-offs from a tree planting expedition a few years ago. Not being ones to let a tree die without giving it a fighting chance, we put them all in the ground. Many of them died back anyway, turning brown or yellow. But one of these came back in the spring, with healthy, bright green growth. I was mystified. I had assumed all the baby conifers were spruce or pine or fir, and had not taken the time to ID them (and honestly, when they’re that little, they’re a lot alike. At least to me.).
How exciting! A tamarack of my very own!
Then a neighbour happened by and got pretty excited when he saw it. “That’s a larch!” he said, “I love larches. They’re my favourite tree!” We stroked its lovely soft needles and exclaimed about its airy structure. I agreed that it is one of my very favourite trees, and respecting his backwoods knowledge more than my moviemaking memory, mentally christened the little gem a larch. Larches must be another deciduous conifer, I thought, and left it at that. No research, no verification.
I really can be horribly pedantic when I want to, but apparently I wasn’t in the mood that day.
That changed when we went to Kalispell, Montana this last weekend.
As we crossed through the Flathead National Forest, we started seeing brilliant yellow trees dotted amongst the pine and spruce. Disease crossed my mind, but just as quickly I realized I was looking at larch trees. Hundreds of them. Maybe thousands. Being used to seeing my one solitary specimen, this was like a big golden early Christmas present.
I’m sure I’ve been looking at them constantly when I’ve been in the mountains, and just didn’t realize it: this week my timing was right to see their golden colour. When they’re green or naked, they kind of disappear into the forest. Even in the four days we were there, we saw them fade and begin to drop.
But what about the big question: tamarack or larch? The lovely people we asked called it a ‘tamarack larch’ which I found completely unhelpful at the time, but turns out to perfectly accurate.
A tamarack larch, or American larch (Larix laricina), is likely what we were looking at in Montana, which is a species of the genus Larix, which includes several European and North American species. So all tamaracks are larches, but not all larches are tamaracks.
Kind of like all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.
As for exactly which larch mine is, I’m done with being pedantic today. I’m just enjoying the colours.