Thursday, November 15, 2012

Hack-ma-what?





Species name: Larix laricina

Common name: Tamarack, American larch

Location: Ontario

The tamarack, or as I like to call it the "hackmatack" (is that not the coolest name for a plant you've ever heard?!), is native to Canada and is one of the only tree species that is present in every province and territory across the entire country. Tamaracks are so versatile because despite being conifers, they lose their needles during the winter. This decreases what's called "evapotranspiration stress" during the winter (the plant's conflict in the needles between wanting to open stomata, or breathing holes, to let in carbon dioxide and oxygen so it can make sugars and energy and wanting to close stomata to prevent water loss). This might seem like a given: open them during the spring, summer and fall when water is easy to come by via the roots, and keep them closed all winter. Easy peasy! Well, it's often not that simple. In order to maintain needles during the winter, there does have to be some amount of carbon fixation that occurs just to maintain basic metabolic processes. If a tree opts instead to shed needles like a flowering tree would shed its leaves, this problem is eliminated. It also makes for a stunning colour display during the fall months: tamaracks turn a bright yellow.

In the Algonquian language (the Algonquian language has given rise to about 30 different languages and dialects spoken by different groups of Native Americans), the word "tamarack" means "wood used for snowshoes" so I hope you can guess what the major use of tamarack wood is! Snowshoes are now rarely made of wood (there are much more "modern" metal varieties these days; I find them much less attractive than those made out of wood!), so the main use of tamarack trees is in the pulp and paper industry. The wood was also used to make a type of tea that could be consumed to help with aches and pains from arthritis. I doubt the proposed medicinal usage actually works to any degree, or else tamaracks would be staples of the supplement market. I'm guessing it's more the placebo effect than anything else. Tamaracks are also popular in Japan for bonsai.