Tamaracks glow from the swamps
October continues to be a transitional time in the Northland. We began the month with mild conditions, some days even quite warm, and slowly moved into a more chilly mode. The anticipated colors of the autumn leaves were with us for many days and we were not disappointed in this arboreal show. Not only did the foliage linger longer this year, but blended with continuous "bright blue weather." We had superb, dazzling scenes. But this is a show in which we know the ending. As rains and especially winds moved in, we had several days of strong breezes and the leaves let go of the branches that held them since mid-May.
Now, as we go through the latter days of this month, we see a forest much more drab. Though many woody plants still hold leaves and even some colors can be found, among the deciduous trees most are bare. The red and yellow scene has become largely one of browns and grays.
The time of AutWin has begun. I define this unique period as the time after the leaves have dropped from the trees and before the snow covers the ground. The length of AutWin will vary with different years, but it will usually last about a month. This is the time when the woods shows us how abundant the lichens, mosses, clubmosses, ferns and evergreens are. With a leaf or snow cover, we often overlook these plants of the forests.
Besides being when we see these lesser-known components of the Northland, AutWin is also the time when the chipmunks and bats still with us will go off to sleep, as do snakes and frogs. Hibernating butterflies, bees and ladybugs seek shelters. It is at this time when birds from the far north will be seen either passing through or staying. Flocks of tundra swans and snow geese may be seen. Rough-legged hawks and goshawks hunt in their cold-weather territories and a good number of songbirds show up in the roadsides, yards and parks. Snow buntings, Lapland longspurs, tree sparrows, pine grosbeaks, redpolls as well as a northern shrike pause to feed and rest. Often in flocks, some continue their southbound journey while others will remain throughout our cold season.
AutWin is the time when we note more cold. Frost replaces dew in the mornings and we see thin ice on ponds and swamps. Snowfalls that begin with flurries become more common. With the ever-shortening days, we move towards the chillier season. But the start of AutWin is also very colorful. It is tamarack time.
All through the summer and early fall these conifers of the swamps have been growing and mostly "acting like other conifers." Like spruces, balsams and pines, they produce leaves in groups of very thin, short needles. These structures on the tamaracks of the wetlands are only about 1-inch long and grow in clusters. While the needles for spruces, balsams and pines are alone, in pairs or maybe in fives, tamaracks needles are in tufts of 15 to 25. In true conifer fashion, there are small cones, about one-half inch, spaced with the needles.
Trees may grow tall and live long, but being in the mostly aquatic environments, they are not as big as other terrestrial conifers. During the warm months, tamaracks are like other conifers. It is in the second half of October that the tamarack takes on an identity of its own. Tamarack, also called larch (this label is more common in the west), is the only conifer in our region that will drop all of its needles in the fall. (Another one, bald cypress, does so in the south.) Other conifers drop some of the needles, but for the most part, they remain evergreen. The tamarack is an evergreen that is not evergreen.
Like their deciduous tree neighbors, tamaracks will go through winter with bare branches. But before dropping the needles, this wetland conifer puts on an amazing colorful exit. It is at this time the swamps glow with a yellow-gold of these trees. They give a sparkling encore to the fall foliage season that may make us forget the blends of reds and yellows that we saw in the maples, sumacs, birches and aspens earlier in the month. I find that driving through the Northland in most every direction in late October becomes a colorful adventure.
With the abundance of swamps, marshes and bogs in the region, all holding thick growths of these trees, it is hard to not see this spectacular scene. Enjoy it while we can. Needles will soon fall and we'll leave this spectacle behind us as we leave October, but continue to see more happenings of AutWin.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o firstname.lastname@example.org.