The Western hemlock is a distinctive tree that is associated with the temperate rain forests that are found along the Pacific coast of North America from the Kenai peninsula north of the Alaskan Pan Handle to the Sonoma County in California. Apart from a pocket in the mountains of British Columbia, Idaho and Montana the tree is seldom found in its natural range more than 100 kilometres from the coast. In the coastal range the tree is seldom found above 600 metres. In the inland pocket it can be found at altitudes of up to 1800 metres. The Western Hemlock can also be found as an introduced species in the United Kingdom and in New Zealand.
The Western Hemlock is sometimes a primary species because it is very shade tolerant. Western Hemlock saplings that grow slowly beneath dominant species of Sitka Spruce and Douglas Fir ultimately break through the canopy and deprive more shade intolerant species of light. More often it is a climax species. It is very long lived, 1200 year old specimens are known, so is able to dominate a forest once established.
The Western Hemlock can grow to a height of between 50 and 70 metres. The tallest specimen at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, California is 78.9 metres tall. Young trees take a conical form which becomes more cylindric with age. On older trees there are no branches less than 30 to 40 metres above the ground. Small ridges run down the thin brown bark. Formally the tree is known as Tsuga heterophylla''. It is a name of mixed Japanese and Greek origin meaning “a tree with different leaves”. The leaves are thin evergreen needles. The tree produces small cones.
Western Hemlock has a number of commercial uses. It is widely planted as a timber crop. The wood is used as timber, pulpwood and in plyewood The heartwood and sapwood is almost white with a purple tint. The wood contains small dark knots and dark brown streaks. The streaks are caused by hemlock bark maggots. The Western Hemlock can also be found as an ornamental tree throughout the Pacific region, in the United Kingdom and in New Zealand.
The Western Hemlock is quite different from the deadly poisonous Hemlock plant associated with the death of Socrates. Western Hemlock bark can be used to produce a very bitter tea. In the spring the Nisga’a and Gitksan native people are said to scrsape out the inner bark and produce a kind of cake. The Saanich people used the bark to die their clothes. The Haida carve many trinkets and feast dishes from the wood.
The Western Hemlock is one of the most distinctive trees in North American and is easy to recognise.