The Edge of the Wood

by John Messeder, Nemophilist & Ecological Storyteller

Name that tree

As a youngster, I spent most of my time afield by myself. I had a brother and a sister, and later a second sister, but there was something about wandering in the forest that appealed to me in ways it never did to the others.

I tended, when not involved in the daily chores of mid-1950s pre-teen country living, to wander off alone or jump in the rowboat to go fishing among the shore-bound deadfalls around the perimeter of the 500-acre pond outside our home, or simply peel down save for a pair of swim goggles and paddle around with the beaver and the loons.

With all the time I spent in the woods, I knew the names of only a few trees, much like living in a human neighborhood in which we know the names of a few neighbors, although we are often friendly with several others we label by sight but not by name.

I have known Korean people to become incensed when white Europeans mistake them for Chinese – not because Koreans do not like Chinese people, but because to those in each group, the others do not appear at all alike. The same goes for Italian movie stars filling Native American roles, leaving movie-goers with an erroneous mental picture.

I have become aware of the same confusion in the woods. It is not necessary to know the names of all the trees to enjoy wandering among them but, as with our fellow human travelers aboard this hurtling chunk of whirling space rock, conversation is more fulfilling when we can call the participants by name.

All trees that look like pine are not, one discovers. Some have long needles with leaves in bundles – called fascicles – of 2, 3 or 5 needles. Some have short leaves that grow in a flat pattern from each side of the branch, while others grow around the branch like a woman’s hairbrush.

Some are pines, others are fir and spruce. The latest in my growing collection of species of which I know their names is a clan of the pine family known officially as the Eastern Larch (Larix laricina), or as it is known in my part of the northeast, Tamarack. It also is known as hackmatack, eastern larch, black larch, red larch, or American larch, depending on where it is found in its range across Canada and southward to the northern mountains of western Maryland.

The Algonquin family of human First Residents lived in the area now termed eastern Canada and northern New England and gave the tree a name meaning “wood for making snowshoes.”

The Eastern larch is, indeed, a conifer, spreading its offspring (seeds) from cones, but it is a deciduous tree: its “leaves” turn bright yellow in late fall and then drop to the ground, leaving the rough-barked specimen looking to the uninitiated like a dead pine.

Foragers among us may find the soft green needles to be nutritious and edible– and boiled. Some reports claim the new shoots can make a palatable tea.

The cones are about the size of small chicken eggs, only about an inch long, oval as they grow before then opening to offer their seeds, their tips flaring and slightly curved like carved wooden rose petals.

I rarely go wandering in the woods without a camera, a practice that has encouraged me to discover lots of things I thought I knew. The forest never ceases to amaze me with its abundance of things to see – rose-petaled “pine” cones,” for instance – if we just poke around with our eyes.

Drop a comment about experiences foraging Tamarack or other favorite discoveries, though giving up the specific location of the treasure is not necessary. It is more fun to know a treasure exists, and then have to find it.


  1. Kathy Jo and I have done a lot of hiking in our years together. We’ve had wonderful experiences here in PA on our mid state trails, in Delaware and the Outer Banks. We were fortunate enough to enjoy a hike in Scotland years ago where bumping into deer and sheep eventually became an expected sight! I guess the best hikes involved some history of the land such as at Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware. Reminders of the Native population (now long gone) can be found in the way the land formed since their habitation and sometimes because of their habitation. I always like to imagine what it was like before we showed up. The trail markers mention how fishing and digging for clams actually changed the topography having taken place for such a long time in one place.
    It always sparks my imagination to run across an overgrown with nature human structure. Who lived here and why did they go?!

  2. Nice read, John. And here I thought “Larch” was that tall fellow on The Addams Family.

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