Western Hemlock Tree – General Information
The western hemlock, not to be confused with the deadly poisonous herb hemlock and to which it bears no relation, is an evergreen conifer, broad in habitat, with a narrow conical crown and a drooping leading shoot.
Having been introduced to the United Kingdom sometime in the 1800’s from its native western North America it quickly became commonly planted for its timber and being extremely shade tolerant made it ideal for planting underneath other trees in forestry plantations.
This impressive specimen is capable of reaching heights of up to 250 feet in its native region but in Great Britain, it generally attains heights of no more than 130 feet, with the tallest recorded specimen having reached the great height of 151 feet.
A very vigorous, fast growing tree with elegant spreading branches the western hemlock makes for an excellent architectural specimen tree.
Description of a Western Hemlock
The bark is a dark grey colour which turns to a dark brown as the tree matures. Mature trees have a fissured and somewhat scaly bark although young trees and higher up on mature trees the bark is smooth.
The leaves are long needles which taper slightly towards the end and are a dark green colour above while the undersides have two white bands which allow the leaves to breathe.
Both male and female cones are produced on the same tree with the bright red male cones appearing in spring which then turn to a pale yellow when they start to release their pollen, while the female cones are a plum purple colour when they first appear, turning green and eventually brown once they have ripened. The cones of the western hemlock are tiny in size, with the female cones having very few scales. Seeds are dispersed by the wind.
Cultivation of a Western Hemlock Tree
The western hemlock requires a moist but well-drained soil and is able to grow on poor acidic and sandy soil. Extremely shade tolerant but also suitable for growing in full sun, the western hemlock is also fairly frosted hardy but does require shelter from the wind.
It is a low maintenance tree and makes an excellent architectural specimen in parks and gardens. This tree can also be pruned into a hedge and makes a beautiful ornamental topiary tree.
Although requiring more water and taking a year or two longer to get established, the tree is a much more manageable hedge than the often used Lawson cypress.
Propagation is by seed.
Pests and Diseases of the Western Hemlock Tree
Western hemlocks in the United Kingdom do not seem to suffer from any particular pests or diseases, although they are susceptible to the root and butt rotting fungus, fomes annosus.
Pruning of a Western Hemlock Tree
If you are growing it as a hedge, then an annual clipping will be required until the hedge has reached your required height and thickness, after which the hedge will require pruning up to three times a year to maintain shape, height and width.
Likewise, like a topiary tree, the western hemlock will need regular pruning to maintain shape and size.
Medicinal Uses of the Tree
Although not actually used today, western hemlock was very commonly used by the native North American Indians. Among some of its very many uses were as a diuretic, for treating tuberculosis, kidney and bladder problems, for foot odour, to get rid of warts and for treating cuts.
Other Uses of the Western Hemlock Tree
Timber produced by the tree is of a moderate quality and it takes nails without splitting. The wood is used for pulping, making boxes, roofing, and for the outsides of buildings. As a fuel, it is slow burning, which makes it useful for keeping a fire burning overnight.
Spruce oil is obtained from the leaves and twigs which are used commercially to flavour ice cream, chewing gum and soft drinks amongst other things.
As well as providing medicine and being used in industry, the western hemlock has also been an important source of food (the inner bark), especially during very harsh and lean times.
Folklore and Mythology
On Vancouver Island, the female warriors of the Kwakwaka’wakwa people used western hemlock in their headdresses when performing ceremonial dances.
Tsuga is the scientific name and means mother of trees. It comes from the Japanese words (tsu) tree and (ga) mother.
Although no longer a native to Britain, fossil records actually show that hemlock trees were growing here thousands of years ago, becoming extinct during the last Ice Age and never returning.
The timber was held in very high regard by Queen Victoria and to honour her husband, Prince Albert, she requested that the scientific name is altered to Tsuga albertiana. Although this was duly done it was only a temporary measure and the trees original name, Tsuga heterophylla was reinstated.