I was traveling the blacktop north of Towner recently and noticed a stand of conifers with yellow needles near the road. I suspect that some travelers might think they were dying pines, but these trees were tamarack, sometimes called larch. They are deciduous conifers, and as Sigurd Olson described in his book The Singing Wilderness, the tamarack will turn from a yellow to a “smoky gold” as fall progresses. It is a beautiful sight in the fall, those tamarack.
Larches or tamaracks are members of the genus Larix. They are not native to North Dakota, but you don’t have to go far into Manitoba or Minnesota to find the native Larix laricina, generally known as tamarack. The species is one of the most widely distributed conifers in North America. Its native range extends across most of Canada from the Northwest Territories to Labrador and Newfoundland, and Minnesota eastward to the New England States
As one might expect from such a large range, tamarack can tolerate a wide range of conditions but is a characteristic species of the northern muskeg, swamps, and other wet areas. Black spruce and tamarack are about the only conifers can that grow on Sphagnum bogs. Further west, roughly from western Montana to the coast is the native range of western larch (Larix occidentalis), a valuable timber species.
So the larches we see here in North Dakota have been planted. Some of those ornamentals are tamarack, but most are probably the introduced Siberian larch. Many casual observers in our area simply refer to conifers as evergreens, as opposed to specifying pine, spruce, or larch. As a result, this rather curious deciduous conifer may be viewed as a dying tree during the fall. I can just about hear a conversation between a neighbor and the recent buyer of an older home with a stately conifer in the yard:
“Why did you cut down that larch in your yard?”
“It was dying. All the needles were turning yellow. Time to take it down.”
“Do you know you cut down a perfectly healthy larch tree?”
So as you travel the region this fall, be it North Dakota, Manitoba, or Minnesota be on the lookout for this interesting conifer. And if you have a conifer in your yard with the needles turning yellow, make sure it is NOT a larch before you take it down!
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.