The Forest Pharmacy
(Article from The Laker)
Tamarack (Larch, Hackamatack) is truly a tree of the North and Northeast. It grows quickly where it can get lots of sunlight. Tamarack is commonly found in cold, wet, boggy soils, but it grows best in moist, well-drained soil, where it can reach 70 to 80 feet in height, and a diameter of two feet. It is only in warm climates and favourable soil conditions that the tree reaches full size. Tamarack is found at the very limit of the tree line in the Arctic, but there some twenty year old trees may be only two or three feet tall.
The Larch family is unique as a conifer which loses its leaves in winter. It has needles like the conifers, but the foliage turns brilliant yellow-gold in the autumn, and then falls to brighten the carpet of the forest floor, leaving the tree bare for the winter months. Spring brings buds of lemon-y pale green tender needles.
Tamarack is also unusual in having two arrangements of needles on one tree. Flexible needles grow singly on twiglets on the new growth at the ends of branches, and grow in clusters of 10 to 20 on dwarfed spur shoots along the branches of older growth.
Tamarack is an interesting tree to the eye, it grows in some incredible shapes. It grows so fast, with so little strength, that it assumes the shapes to which the wind and other natural influences mold it. I've seen a few distinct 'S' shapes, and one Tamarack with a 'C' in the middle.
The inner bark is the part of the Tamarack most commonly used in Popular Medicine. This inner bark is recognized as being a nervine, diuretic diaphoretic, cathartic, laxative, vulnerary, a tonic for digestion and an alterative for internal glands. Tamarack has been used for bleeding (e.g., bloody sputum, bleeding haemorrhoids, heavy menstruation) for easing melancholy and jaundice due to liver obstruction, or an enlarged and hardened spleen, for colic, diarrhea, rheumatism, asthma, urinary passage diseases, and painful menses.
The internal dosage would be 1 heaping teaspoon to a cup of boiling water, steeped for 30 minutes and drunk by the half cup four to five times a day.
Externally, the inner bark has been chewed or boiled to make a poultice for burns and wounds (renewed twice daily), headaches, open sores, and for poisonous insect bites. It is known to drive out inflammation and to generate heat. Larch inner bark tea is used as a wash for gangrene, old running sores (ulcers) and inflamed eyes. The lukewarm tea can be placed in the ear for earache. When it is made very strong, the tea helps overcome the 'itch,' and to kill nits and lice (several treatments may be necessary to kill them all). It is also used as a sitz bath for haemorrhoids. The inner bark can be boiled in oil or fat to make a helpful salve for haemorrhoids.
The Micmac and Malecite peoples of Canada's Maritimes used the inner bark of Tamarack for wounds, colds, gonorrhea, consumption and general physical weakness.
Tamarack twigs and chips have been known to make a nourishing soup. Interestingly, one can make a big brew of the needles and shoots, pour it into a big tub and hop right in for a healthful and stimulating bath.
A tea made of the young branches is known to be laxative and cathartic for the intestinal tract.
The gum and/or the leaves make an astringent and vulnerary brew that heals wounds and desperate bruises. The gum has been described as having a good chewing flavour.
This vulnerary principle in Tamarack carries even into the ashes of the tree, which can be mixed with boiling water to make a paste that is healing to burns and wounds.
The root bark has been used in a poultice for inflammations, and in a tea that's given to horses suffering with distemper.
Either the leaves or the inner bark can be boiled in water and the resultant steam inhaled to help a headache. This steam has also been recommended as a fumigator.
Larch tincture is used in healing bronchitis and urinary passage inflammation.
Boring into the tree releases a resin known as 'Venice Turpentine.' Use it with CAUTION, as it can cause kidney damage and blisters on the skin. Internally, no more than eight drops mixed with honey will help to expel tapeworms, heal bloody diarrhea and restore the flow of suppressed menstruation. Externally, a hot damp cloth can be moistened with the resin and applied to sores, wounds, and skin problems. Remove it after half an hour, and do not repeat for 24 hours. For a milder external application use one part Venice Turpentine dissolved in three parts of 80% alcohol.
Many wild creatures are fond of the seeds, needles, and inner bark of Tamarack. These include grouse, snowshoe hare, red squirrel, porcupine and deer.
The moderately hard, heavy, and somewhat oily wood of Tamarack is resistant to decay. It is used for telegraph poles, fence posts (reported to last for 20 years), railroad ties and boat building. As firewood Tamarack is not as dense as harder woods, but its oily resin makes it a HOT wood that has been reported locally to have warped and melted some cookstove plates and liners.