Eastern Hemlock

Big Old HemlocksI walk into the hemlock woods and breathe deeply.  Everything is different here…  everything from the smell and temperature of the air I breathe to the feel of the earth beneath my feet.  And it’s dark here, dark and quiet, peaceful and holy.  I cannot help but slow my pace.  I cannot help but slow my mind.

There is a sense of family in a hemlock forest.  Older trees tower over and protect young saplings.  And because hemlocks can grow to be so very old, there is a sense that great wisdom is stored up here… if only we knew how to tap it.  Some of the lessons we can glean just by observing the tree…

Hemlock Cones
Lesson #1:  Great things come in small packages.

Hemlock cones are among the smallest for conifers, only 1/2 to 1 inch long.  Yet give one of the tiny seeds the right conditions and you could have a tree that grows over 170 feet tall and lives for hundreds of years.

Looking Up   Hemlock on the Rocks
Lesson #2:  Even without the perfect living conditions, we can thrive.

Seeds will only germinate under certain conditions:  there must be shade, moisture, and temperatures between 44° and 64° F.  Despite these very exacting requirements, I have seen hemlocks growing in the most unusual places, clinging to the sides of steep cliffs, sitting atop boulders.

Lesson #3:  Be helpful to others at all times.

Campers know that that the “litter” produced by hemlocks will serve as tinder even if it is wet.  Hemlocks have made me the One-Match Queen of the Campfire on many occasions.  Thank you Hemlocks!

Enormous Hemlock
Lesson #4:  Create a more hospitable world.

Turkey Tail DragA maturing hemlock forest creates a microclimate all its own.  It is cooler and moister beneath the canopy.  Not only are young hemlocks protected under the shelterwood, so are deer, turkey, grouse and other animals whose tracks and signs I regularly find there.

Hemlock Macro
Lesson #5:  Be patient.

In a hemlock forest, under the canopy of the large trees, you will find small trees, maybe only 3-5 inches in diameter.  Don’t be deceived by their small size… these trees could be older than you.  In the deep shade, the saplings grow slowly and steadily, patiently waiting for their big chance…  a windstorm, perhaps, that topples one of the giants, whose roots don’t go as deep as you would think.  The sudden availability of light will send Little Tree into a much faster growth season… and it won’t be long (in hemlock years) before he is the Giant.

When I walk into a hemlock woods, I feel as if I have entered a special place.  When I die, spread my ashes in a hemlock forest.

Learn more:


Eastern Hemlock

Featured in Festival of the Trees #32.

26 thoughts on “Eastern Hemlock

  1. A really nice piece on one of my favorite trees. We have a few hemlocks scattered about where I live in southwestern Ohio; most are, of course, in the state’s southeastern hill country.

    Loved the photos, too. You have a good eye and I appreciate how you often post several shots in a piece. I enjoy your blog a lot…and share your admiration for winter.

  2. Stands of hemlock sure do embody a sense of the holy. In one of my childhood favorite adventure series by Lew Dietz of Maine, the Jeff White Series, an exclamation used by characters was “Holy ‘ol hemlock!”
    One of my favorite groves, that I camp at in the summer, is on Grand Island in Lake Superior. It is a holy spot on this largest island on Superior’s south shore. To walk among these old growth monarchs is to commune with the ages.The area Anishinabe still go there each autumn to camp and commune with their forebears.
    I raelly like the “Lessons” that you have to show the qualities of the tree and relate it in a new way to the reader!

  3. You have captured the spirit and aura of the Hemlock, so distinctive a tree that few others match. I know of no other that form that lovely shaded understory where one can pitch a tent and have that special, almost spiritual feel. It is indeed a unique, holy place — and a fitting one for ones ashes.

  4. Jennifer I am intruiged with this post and the reverence for Hemlock. We see it as an introduced species in Australia, with its foliage dangerous to stock. Is hemlock weed something different again? A child in the state of Victoria was poisoned by ingesting hemlock and we have eradication programs where it tends to take hold in pastures. I think all trees are beautiful but livestock (and sport!) seem to be the priorities in this country sad to say.To this day our country is clearing old-growth forests in The Tarkine area of Tasmania. On a cheerier note, I enjoyed your post so much and love your photographs.

  5. Very nice evocation of one of my favorite trees (currently under assault here from the hemlock wooly adelgic, a microscopic insect). I presume you’ll be submitting this to the next Festival of the Trees?

  6. That tree we all climbed in my back yard was a hemlock. It was the best jungle gym in the world! My mother always warned us not to eat the berries (they were “bird berries” for birds, not berries for little girls) or chew on the branches, because that’s what killed Socrates.

  7. Five years or so ago, I heard about Lily Dale on the radio and investigated. I bought the book and not long after, a long time friend came to visit me in Chicago. I threw him in the car and we drove to New York State.

    Lily Dale was… well, Lily Dale, but we had some time and so drove north and a tad east. We ended up at Lake Chautauqua. My friend is really unimpressed with anything nature has to offer. At the sight of the lake, his breathing ceased to exist. Mine did, as well.

    I am from Kentucky but have lived in Chicago since 1979. The city was what I wanted, then. Since, I and my husband have had some time in northern Wisconsin and both of us were changed by the experience.

    But my time in New York state…the age of your forests, your grape arbors (I don’t know what to call them), the ponds filled with water lilies just sitting by the side of the road….. the age of all of it moved me and I’ve never forgotten.

    My husband has become a chef. I am a gardener. If life and time doesn’t give us Wisconsin, I want where you live.

    I’m grateful for your posts. Don’t remember how I got here, but you’re on my list now.

    Thank you.

  8. Hi Susan! Thanks for clicking by… I have to go into teaching mode for a second: Are you sure the tree you climbed was a hemlock? Hemlocks make pine cones, not berries. Maybe you had a yew – which does make berries that are poisonous. Still, this is not what killed Socrates… Conium maculatum was more likely the culprit there… In fact, one website for Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) says this:

    Despite cultural associations with the poisonous hemlock plant (conium maculatum), the needles of the Canadian hemlock are non-poisonous and can be infused to create a tea rich in vitamin C. (source)

    Hello and welcome to Robin! Thanks for your comments about our wonderful home here in western New York. But once again, a little correction… Lake Chautauqua is south of Lily Dale. Do you mean Lake Erie? That would certainly take your breath away!

  9. We have one of these giants in our front yard and one of the first things I noticed about it when we moved here is how brittle it’s branches are and the copious amount of needles it drops.

    Sometimes when I get frustrated with my car, I go out and park it under this massive tree, hoping a gust of wind will drop a giant branch on it and put it out of it’s misery. LOL

  10. I love the feel of a hemlock forest.
    Around here, they’re very unusual–most are the oak hickory, with scatterings of cedars moving in.

    So, I wonder what it gives us that feel–perhaps the quiet held within? That makes us hold our breath and wait for something.

  11. Your description of how you feel when you enter the hemlock forest in the first two paragraphs is describes the way I’ve felt many times walking through such areas.-I do pay attention to the photos showing cones and needles too because I’m still not sure which evergeens are which in some cases.

  12. I was trying to learn more about the hemlock tree I used to climb as a child and a Google search brought me here to your lovely post – I loved the lessons taught by my best tree friend. Thank you!

  13. I craft witch figures and like to have a bit of nature scattered near their feet as they are standing stirring their brew and mixing their potions. The tiny size of the Hemlock pinecone is perfect for the scene. I have only come across one Hemlock tree that is close to my house and that is usually where I gather the cones. Can you please tell me if the tree drops these cute little pinecones early or late in the fall? I live in Delaware. Thank you and Happy Fall !!

  14. Pingback: Nature Photo Challenge: Tiny Pinecones | Pics and Posts

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