Mystery tree offers great chance to learn

Mystery tree offers great chance to learn
John C. Lorson

An early morning sunbeam spotlighted this tree along the Holmes County Trail just south of Fredericksburg. I’d passed this spot a thousand times and in all seasons without ever noticing before that this particular tree loses all its needles each fall, and I took advantage of this “teachable moment” to learn more.


This adventure started off so simply. There I was, pedaling along on a cold, cloudy morning when a single sunbeam punched through the gray overcast. It was as if someone had flipped a light switch on a lone golden tree along the trail just ahead of me. I slowed in awe. Awash in light from top to bottom, the carpet of leaves below glowed with an equal gilded brilliance. As I rolled closer, I realized the red-gold specimen was considerably different than the maple, oak, beech and cherry trees that typically line my path. This tree had needles — and every one of them appeared to be on its way to the ground.

As I’ve mentioned many times before on these pages, I was never much of a “plant guy” in my study of biology. Animals occupied all of my interest and most of my time. I did the plant stuff only because the curriculum required it, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve become increasingly more interested in green things. My rudimentary efforts at gardening might be at the root of this phenomenon — or maybe it’s just plants move much more slowly than animals and it’s easier for me to keep up. Nevertheless, in an effort to broaden my horizons, I’ve taken to actively working on learning my plants. This golden, needle-spiked tree beside the trail demanded further research.

I knew, of course, that not all conifers were evergreens, a fact I learned as a young buck from the writings of naturalist Aldo Leopold in his 1949 classic, "A Sand County Almanac:" “There are two times to hunt grouse: ordinary times and when the tamaracks are smoky gold.” Caught up both poetically and literally in that line, I had to learn about this thing called a tamarack.

It turned out Leopold’s needled muse was one of a handful of deciduous conifers here in North America. Plentiful in Leopold’s Wisconsin stomping grounds, the tree, also known as the American larch, loses its needles each fall to regrow new ones in the spring.

Most simply, needles are leaves, though their shape — built for water retention, resistance to freezing and handling wind under snow load — is considerably different. Like their typically broad and flat counterparts, they gather sunlight and make food for the tree. Conifers often thrive in higher latitudes (closer to the earth’s poles) and at higher altitudes where conditions are tougher and light available for photosynthesis is less abundant during much of the year.

Most conifers retain their needles throughout the year to gather as much sunlight as possible in the limited conditions. It takes an incredible amount of energy for any tree to grow foliage, so there’s added efficiency for a tree that keeps its leaves. (Imagine installing solar panels on your house for the spring, summer and fall each year and then chucking the whole mess each winter to start over again the following season.)

Our typical deciduous trees lose their thin, flat and relatively large leaves each fall for a number of reasons. First, it takes energy to make energy, and those broad leaves aren’t very efficient at energy conversion during shortened days. Furthermore, leaves are not just solar-power collectors; they also gather carbon dioxide and release oxygen. The thin, flat surfaces required for those functions also are a perfect mechanism for releasing water to the atmosphere.

Think of the maple leaf as a piece of clean laundry. When you hang that towel on the line, you spread it out as much as possible so the moisture can evaporate quickly. Leaves lose water in much the same fashion, and if the tree needs that water to survive throughout the lean months of winter, then it would do well to dump those “water wicks” to the ground.

But back to that tree along the trail. Leopold’s tamarack was a “smokey gold,” but this tree had a distinctly reddish tint to it. I whipped out my iPhone, not only to take a picture of a beautiful tree but to try to identify the species — an effort that led me on a week-long journey of discovery. Come back next week to find out what I learned.

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.

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