Unless you spend time in the bush, you probably haven’t noticed the return of the Tamarack. You might notice that a lot of the new growth young ‘spruce’ trees along the road seem to have a lighter green colour, sort of an apple green, or that in winter a lot of the young ‘spruce’ trees along the highway seem to be dead, no needles, you might have thought they have been sprayed for the hydro wires. If you were out in the fall, there are a few days when you might have noticed that a lot of the ‘spruce’ trees have turned a beautiful, greeny-yellowy-orange – somebody told me the colour name is ‘saffron’ -1 wouldn’t really know.
That is because a big proportion of the new young growth along the highways and in the bush where jackpine is not absolute master is not spruce but tamarack, otherwise known as eastern Larch. It has needles, but it loses them in fall like a tree with leaves, with a spectacular fall colour to boot. When the settlers came here, there was lots of tamarack. It is a different kind of tree, some say a very old species, its fossilized pollen is found in layers millions of years older than other modern trees, sort of like the jackfish of trees. The wood is heavy, so tough you don’t really want to try to cut it with an ax, and hard to split. It is flexible, it will bend a lot more under load before breaking than other woods. It burns with such a heat that it melts stoves. It doesn’t get slivers, and it doesn’t rot, at least, not quickly. It is not great papermaking raw material, and the mills limit the amount they will accept.
Old-timers will remember the poem, ‘the one-horse shay’, about a carriage, each part of which was made of the best wood for that purpose (“the panels of whitewood, which cuts like cheese, but wears like iron for things such as these”). At the end of its life, the entire carriage disintegrates all at once, sort of like a car when it gets to the end of its warranty period. The point is, in olden days carpenters were very familiar with the properties of different woods, and would use wood where its properties best suited. In pioneer days here, tamarack was much used for foundation logs and barn floors for its rot-proof properties. Wagon parts such as the ‘reach’ – the piece of wood that connected the front and back half of the old wooden wagons, or the ‘tongue’, the piece of wood which went up between the horses to allow them to steer and stop the wagon, were made of tamarack, as these parts could come under a lot of stress in case of some bad driving. It was used for high-stress building parts such as barn floor joists. I replaced the rotted-out oak box on my manure spreader with tamarack.
Tamarack is normally widespread in the boreal forest – the dominant forest in vast tracts just north of where jackpine dominates is what the Siberians named ‘taiga’ – mixed tamarack and birch. In our part of the world, the tamarack was all killed by an epidemic of the ‘larch sawfly’ in the thirties, except for a few really big old specimens. We have forgotten about the remarkable properties and uses of this noble tree. Now that it is coming back with a vengeance, we need to remember it, and market it. Nobody likes pressure-treated wood, as it cannot help but contain toxic chemicals, and it is expensive. There ought to be a big market for tamarack lumber instead of pressure-treated stuff for decks, docks, and walkways, at a profitable price.