One of Aldo Leopold’s best essays was “Smoky Gold” included in his A Sand County Almanac – "The tamaracks change from green to yellow when the first frosts have brought woodcock, fox sparrows, and juncos out of the north. … I regard a phalanx of young tamaracks, their golden lances thrusting skyward. Under each the needles of yesterday fall to earth building a blanket of smoky gold …" Tamarack is pretty scarce in northcentral Pennsylvania however, occurring only in some widely scattered wetlands -- relics of the last time a glacier came this way.
Tamarack is known by a variety of different names across its wide range – tamarack, hackmatack, eastern larch. That range extends from Newfoundland to the Yukon and south to the Lake States and West Virginia. It is very intolerant of shade and is most commonly found in wetlands and recently disturbed areas. While we don’t have much tamarack, there’s quite a bit of the related European larch and Japanese larch in this part of Pennsylvania.
It’s obvious from their names that European and Japanese larch aren’t species native to our area, but are instead imports that have frequently been planted in old fields and also used to re-vegetate strip mines. In Leopold’s Wisconsin the tamarack turn color and begin to shed their needles in October; here the larches are at their best in early to mid-November. Gleaming golden on the hillsides, the larch are readily apparent to even the most casual observer. And, yes the larches are deciduous conifers – unlike the pines, spruce and fir that always have green needles on their branches, the larches shed all their needles each autumn.
Although they’re very similar in general appearance, the imported larches can be told apart by the color of their new twigs. European larch twigs are straw-colored while those of Japanese larch are salmon-colored.
|European Larch Japanese Larch|
But for now we can enjoy the November gold, it’s obvious after the hardwood leaves have fallen and among the last of nature’s bright colors that we’ll see until next spring.