Meeting the Eastern Hemlock

Eastern Hemlock branch covered in snow with cones hanging below

The abundance of cones this year was what drew my attention to this Eastern Hemlock.

It was an abundance of tiny pinecones dangling below the branches that brought my attention to the tree this winter. I had not paid much attention to this tree in the past, mostly because it was just one of the many evergreens that grow here, and I had not spent time getting to know them individually. It is probably no coincidence that the tree came into my awareness now when I have just stepped onto the Druidic path.

After some research I discovered that the tree was an Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), whose common name came from the poisonous European herb, perhaps because of a similar smell. This Hemlock tree is a pine. The branches are pretty and lacy, and the tree is loosely pyramid-shaped.

I was curious about the noticeably large number of cones this year but read that the Eastern Hemlock likes moist soil. Last summer was cool and very, very rainy. It seemed there were few hot, sunny days. I kept wishing it would dry out for a bit, but I guess the tree was happy.

The seeds in those cones are popular with some of the local wildlife, including red squirrels. My little friends must be eating well, as scales (the “petals” of the cone) litter the snow under the tree. Mice, voles, and even snowshoe hares will pick up any seeds that fall to the ground. A few of the winter birds, including black-capped chickadees and dark-eyed juncos, also enjoy the seeds. I also learned that porcupine like to dine on the bark and twigs of the Hemlock, but I have not seen one here.

Hemlocks grow slowly and make take 300 years to reach maturity. The Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, an aphid-like insect native to Japan and accidentally introduced to North America, is decimating our Hemlocks. An infestation leads to decline and mortality within ten years. Hemlock trees are dying all along the east coast of the United States. Because the cold seems to be the only thing that stops the Woolly Adelgids, the Hemlocks here, in the Adirondacks, have been spared. Since the average temperature is rising due to climate change, our Hemlocks may not be safe for too much longer, though.

I will be monitoring my new acquaintance, the Eastern Hemlock, for signs of Woolly Adelgid while I observe the tree’s seasonal changes. If watching the tree means I am likely to spot a red squirrel scurrying across a branch, all the better. I feel blessed that I was invited to meet this tree.

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