The Western hemlock can be found in the western region North America and is one of the most beautiful trees of the Pacific Northwest. It is the state tree of Washington and can be found as far north as southern Alaska and as far south as northern California. These trees can also be found east of the Cascade range in Idaho and Montana. Known botanically as Tsuga heterophylla, the Western hemlock is an important timber species and is also one of the most abundant types of tree found in the forests of its range.
The Western hemlock has feathery looking needles which are soft to the touch and are irregularly sized and spaced from each other. The needles are held flat on slightly drooping branches making the tree look like it is weeping. The top leader of the tree is also weeping and is especially pronounced during the growing season. This gives the tree a very graceful look when compared to other conifers that stand more erect and have needles that stand out from the branches. Tiny cones of ¾ -1 inch long can be found on the top sides of the branches on mature trees. The bark is a grayish-brown and furrowed when the tree is older but not as deeply furrowed as a Douglas fir. Western hemlocks can grow to be 100-150 feet tall but generally do not attain the heights of other western conifer species. This lack of height is due to the tree’s ability to grow in the shade of other trees. Western hemlocks will still grow large but do not need to compete for light in order to grow and reproduce as other trees do. The general spread of Western hemlocks is 30-40 feet across.
The Pacific coast Native Americans used Western hemlocks for a variety of purposes. The bark was used to tan hides as it contains a high concentration of tannins. The bark was also used in the making of dyes for fishing nets, baskets, and paddles. Western hemlock wood is a very durable material and was carved into spoons, bowls, combs, spearshafts, bows for children, and hooks. The branches of the tree were used as bedding material as well as a way to collect salmon spawn from streams. Medicines were also made from parts of the tree such as a bark steeped tea used to treat internal injuries and hemorrages and the use of pitch to treat sunburns and for poultices.
One of the largest Western hemlock trees can be found in the Hoh National Rainforest on the Olympic peninsula of Washington state which is also home to other large conifers such as Douglas fir, Grand fir, and Western red cedar.
Little, Elbert L. National Audobon Field Guide to North American Trees. Syracuse: Knopf, 1980.
Pojar, Jim, Andy MacKinnon. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Vancouver: Lone Pine Publishing, 1994.