Hemlock is a Beautiful Tree

Guest Post by Jocie Brooks

I drive through Miracle Beach Provincial Park quite regularly, en route to my mother’s house. I always enjoy going through the park, where the boughs of western hemlock fan out on each side of the road in broad, sweeping sprays. When dusted with snow the effect is even more enchanting, like entering a scene from a fairytale.

Here on the coast, it is easy to become quite blasé about living in the midst of all of these big, beautiful trees. But travel anywhere else in the world, and you will soon realize just how unique and special our coastal forests truly are.

Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla)
Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) is characterized by small cones, feathery needles that are different lengths, and a drooping leader.

Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) is one of the most common conifers in our area. Early settlers called the tree “hemlock” because they thought that the odour of the crushed needles resembled a European weed. “Tsuga” translates from Japanese as “tree mother,”and “heterophylla” means needles of variable length.

Like other coastal conifers, western hemlock is a large tree, growing up to 60 metres in height and two metres in diameter. It has a narrow crown and a distinctive, drooping tip. The sweeping branches have a feathery appearance due to the small delicate needles. Hemlocks can live for more than 500 years.

The needles of hemlock are much shorter than those of other conifers. They are flat and blunt-tipped and if you look closely you will notice that they are unequal lengths, some being very short and others longer. Length varies from 5-20 mm. The needles are a shiny yellow-green on the surface with two fine lines of white stomata on the underside.

The bark is smooth and reddish-brown when young, but turns a darker brown with age and develops furrows and scaly ridges. It is never as deeply furrowed as Douglas-fir bark. The small oval-shaped cones are golden brown and abundant. The cones are only a few centimetres long, and for this reason are easily overlooked. The wood of the western hemlock is whitish to light tan and is strong and light, but easy to carve. Commercially, it is an important tree in BC.

Western hemlock is found on wet or fairly dry sites, and seedlings often get a start by growing from decaying wood and other organic matter. Being a slower growing, more shade-tolerant species, western hemlock often succeeds the faster growing, light loving Douglas-fir.

Western hemlock is found in coastal BC and the interior “wet belt” of eastern BC. It occurs at elevations up to around 1000 metres, at which point mountain hemlock becomes more common.

Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana)
Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) has blue/green needles that are equal in length and arranged like a bottle brush. It has larger cones than Western Hemlock.

Mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) is well adapted to subalpine conditions and can tolerate a snow pack as deep as six metres. It looks quite similar to western hemlock, but there are key differences. Mountain hemlock rarely exceeds 40 metres in height and may be stunted or almost bonsai-like if it is growing at exposed places or in bogs.

The needles are blue-green and are arranged around the stems in a bottle-brush like fashion (not flattened). Unlike western hemlock, the lengths of the needles are equal. The branches sweep upwards at the tips, and for this reason it doesn’t provide much protection for those seeking shelter from rain. The purplish-brown cones of mountain hemlock are long and cylindrical and are at least double the length of western hemlock cones.

Skiers this winter can take a closer look at mountain hemlock, which is common in the subalpine around Mt. Washington and in Strathcona Provincial Park on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) is named after German botanist Franz Carl Mertens.

First Nations peoples used hemlock for a wide range of purposes. In the late spring, the inner bark was harvested and eaten fresh or dried and eaten with highbush cranberries and oulachen (a small fish) grease. Hunters and travelers would nibble the tips of the branches as a hunger suppressant. During the herring spawn, hemlock branches were placed into the ocean to catch herring eggs, which were a favourite food. The bark was boiled and used for dyeing and tanning. Various parts of the hemlock tree were also commonly used for medicinal purposes.

Hemlock is a beautiful tree, that can be easily recognized with a bit of practice. Though hemlocks look like they would make great Christmas trees, they tend to shed their needles readily after being brought indoors. Douglas-fir or grand fir are a better choice. But a hemlock in-situ with its sweeping branches and a dusting of snow is, in my opinion, the prettiest Christmas tree of all.