A Tribute to the Eastern Hemlock

Like a modern Cinderella story the little known hemlock has taken a backseat in the public consciousness to the official tree of Ontario, the stately white pine. I, too, love the white pines – often standing tall like sentinels guarding the wilderness. It is easy to understand why this majestic tree is sometimes referred to as the king of conifers. However if the white pine is king I would nominate the feathery, lacy, hauntingly beautiful hemlock as queen.. Hemlocks are the most exquisite and elegant of all our eastern conifers. Needless to say I along with many others have fallen under its spell!

For reasons that are not clear there are few pure stands of hemlock left in Ontario. Therefore I was thrilled when along with members of MMLTC we came across a substantial stand of hemlock from saplings to old trees in a wilderness property that has been generously donated to us for future protection. Each time I go for a walk at cliffLAND I feel compelled to stop in their presence and be thankful for their existence.

I first made their acquaintance over thirty years ago. I was horrified with the thought that this beautiful tree was under siege by insects but I was soon to learn that these orderly small holes encircling the whole tree was the work of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers who come early in the Spring to tap their favoured species. It turns out I was not alone in my ignorance, as the majority of those I have taken on guided walks jump to the same conclusion. Often this is their first exposure to a hemlock and inevitably someone asks if this is poisonous. No, our eastern hemlock is completely unrelated to the poison drank by Socrates.

Horace Kephart, the well known outdoorsman of the late 18th and early 19th century, found that of all of the nature cues used in the forest to predict direction, the hemlock was the most reliable. The long and slender terminal shoot points just a little south of east. In his travels he determined that this compass was right at least three-quarters of the time. Pretty good odds if you are lost.

From a less utilitarian perspective the ecologist John Theberge speaks glowingly about the beauty of the hemlock:

Uncut, undefiled old-growth hemlock stands are north-country cathedrals. Graceful limbs, bowing branches, fluted trunks. Tiers of delicate dark-green archways filter the sunlight like a stained-glass window.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized the hemlock in a poem:

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks. Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight stand like the Druids of old.”

Theberge and Longfellow were describing old-growth hemlock stands. Such stands were once prevalent from Ottawa through eastern and central Ontario. Many now fear they may be irretrievably lost. Hemlock can live to be a thousand years of age but the oldest known one still left in Ontario is located in Algonquin Park. It is 454 years of age and towers at 30 metres in height. This is a bitter-sweet treasure because it also reminds us of what has been lost.

Michael Henry and Peter Quinby in 2010 remind us that hemlock has been declining across most of its range. In Michigan they have decreased by an amazing 70% in a short 20 year span between 1935 and 1955 and have also dramatically declined across most of Ontario. Once hemlock forests covered about 41% of the land area of the Bruce Peninsula and is almost non-existent today. In our area of Darling Township, hemlock-dominated forests declined from about 20% to 0% of the landscape. A recent report by the Community Stewardship Council of Lanark states that Lanark has relatively few eastern hemlocks, perhaps due to early over-harvesting or to forest fires.

Michael Henry and Peter Quinby believe that the loss is largely a result of human activity.

Hemlock has declined by at least three-quarters outside Algonquin Park and even the park itself has not escaped. Hemlock avoided major hits during the river drives of the 1900s because hemlock wood due to its density and weight did not float long distances as easily. Once the railroads opened up access to the forests, hemlock too were decimated with the final hit coming when hemlock timbers from Algonquin Park were used to build the Toronto subway system.

Dan Strickland, an authority on Algonquin Park, agrees with their assessment and explains that when hemlock is cut it is rarely succeeded by other hemlock. In almost all the hemlock stands left in Algonquin Park there are very few young hemlock beneath the old trees. Although there are some seedling-size hemlocks, upon closer inspection they are found to be old as well. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources states that hemlocks in the shade can take 250 to 300 years to mature.

Old growth hemlock forests left undisturbed are extremely stable but very sensitive and vulnerable to disturbances by man. Their requirements for regeneration are very precise and difficult to achieve. If the existing stands do not regenerate then their long term future is bleak.

Dan Strickland poignantlydescribes hemlocks contribution to richness of diversity.

When you walk into a hemlock grove you immediately leave the Red-eyed Vireo and the Least Flycatcher behind and start hearing the songs of the Blackburnian and Black-throated Green Warblers. Or if you visit in the evening you may be serenaded by a Swainson’s Thrush – a bird you would never expect to find in the hardwoods just a hundred yards away.

In our area, and I suspect in most of Ontario, you will seldom find large stands of pure hemlock and they are now generally only found in small patches and/or intermingled among other species.

Let’s hope society will find the resources, the will, and the expertise to regenerate hemlock stands so that eventually old-growth stands of hemlock may yet be inherited from us to future generations.

In the meantime I take great pleasure each time I come across these elegant and beautiful trees. Sensing what we can lose, I hope we will all commit ourselves anew to preserving the little that still exists. The sapsuckers, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird who delight in the treats left by the sapsuckers, the songbirds that depend on the fact that hemlocks release their seeds intermittently from late Fall to early Spring, the Ruffled Grouse and the deer who seeks their protection in deep snowy winters will all be grateful. Last but not least are the yet unborn children who like us may still fall under the magic spell of this most elegant conifer and Cinderella will regain its rightful place in our rich and diverse wilderness.