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Late October is tamarack time

A closer look at a tamarack in its autumn attire. Note how the needles grow in clumps. Photo by Larry Weber1 / 2
A tamarack as it appears in its yellow-gold needles on an October day. Photo by Larry Weber2 / 2

Late October is upon us, and the colorful changing scene that we observed so much earlier this month continues.

The bulk of the leaf drop from local deciduous trees happened as expected about mid-month. This year, the late peak colors of this annual arboreal show did not last too long as the strong off-lake winds and above normal rainfall brought down most of the foliage.

This leaf drop of mid-October does not happen all at once, and many trees lingered with their leaves. I find that quaking aspens tend to keep their yellow leaves longer than most.

A couple of common trees frequently found in towns and cities, weeping willows and silver maples, also retain their colors throughout the month. But mostly, the dazzling reds and yellows have passed, but there is more.

Now from the swamps, we see the glow of a kind a conifer: tamaracks.

Tamaracks, also known as "larch," are common in swamps and bogs of the Northland. They have been in these wetlands all year, but we now take note of them and realize just how abundant they are.

They are a native conifer to the region, along with pines, spruces, balsam, cedar, junipers and yews. Hemlocks are also quite common in northwest Wisconsin, but only sporadic in Minnesota.

And like these other conifers, tamaracks have thin leaves called needles. These structures are about 1 inch long and grow in clumps of 15-25, from knobs on branches.

When fully grown and green, tamaracks look thick. But unlike the other local conifers, tamaracks will drop all of their needles at once in fall. Other conifers do drop needles in autumn, as we frequently see in our yards, but not all at one time.

Shedding all their needles, tamaracks demonstrate they are evergreens that are not evergreen — a deciduous coniferous tree. Before the needles drop, however, tamaracks put on quite a show.

Triggered by the shortening amount of daylight during the second half of October — less than 10.5 hours — the tree's green chlorophyll breaks up in the needles, and like the broad leaves of deciduous trees, the ever-present yellow xanthophyll will now appear.

But tamaracks seem to go a step further than the surrounding deciduous trees — the colors of their needles form a deep yellow-gold that appears to be glowing from swamps and bogs. And we have many of these wetlands in the Northland — plenty of glowing tamaracks.

I find the colors from these wet habitats are so amazing now that they demand our attention. Frequently, we'll stop for a closer look and take trips just to see these terrific tamaracks. With this golden glow a bit later than that of the colorful deciduous trees, they give an encore to the arboreal autumn. Such a scene may make us forget the earlier fall foliage and enjoy the present.

Usually tamarack time of the Northland — the second half of October — ends and their needles have fallen. Why do tamaracks drop their needles when our other conifers do not?

It could be that they grow in wetland soil that is a bit poorer than other sites and is too demanding on the tree to keep its foliage. It is interesting the only other conifer that acts in a similar manner, the cypress of the south, also grows in wetlands.

Tamaracks' golden glows from the swamps give us a great finale this month.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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