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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Trees

trees in autumn

Subtle shades of green give way to garish reds and yellows as winter approaches. The leaves of deciduous trees change colours and fall to the ground, leaving branches bare. The larch tree, also called tamarack or Indian hardwood, is the only conifer in the region that drops its needles. In a blaze of glory, larch needles turn a brilliant gold a few days before falling. In the winter, trunks and branches are off-white, grey, and shades of brown among the evergreen spruce.

-Terry Garvin, from Carving Faces, Carving Lives: People of the Boreal Forest

Because of its short growing season and cold climate, the boreal forest is made up primarily of evergreen coniferous trees. They are called coniferous because they bear their seeds in conical structures that hang from their branches. In the northwest, the dominant evergreen species is spruce, though other conifers, like jack pine, also thrive in the region. Evergreen trees evolved the ability to photosynthesize needed nutrients at colder temperatures, thus extending their growing cycle even in the frigid conditions of the northwest.

stripped tree

Deciduous trees, so named because they drop their leaves in the autumn, also make their home in the boreal forest. Two notable species are birch and poplar. These broad leafed trees have adapted to life in the northwest by photosynthesizing their food faster and more efficiently than their evergreen counterparts. This accelerated food production allows the deciduous trees to take full advantage of the short growing season in the north. Once they drop their leaves in the fall, they hibernate through the winter before growing new leaves the following spring.

To the Aboriginal Peoples of the northwest, boreal forest trees were critical to survival. Trees provided wood for construction, and sap, bark, and leaves were used for food and medicines. Traditional lifestyles were centred on a detailed knowledge of trees, what materials they could provide, and when in a tree's life cycle was the right time to harvest.

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