In May evergreen conifer trees send out new growth—giving branch tips a bright limey-green color. The buds and young needles of hemlock, Douglas fir, and spruce make delicious forest snacks and beverages. Hemlock trees are common in Western Washington and often begin their life growing on nurse logs and stumps in complete shade. Over time, these tiny saplings mature into tall, resilient trees that can live over a thousand years old.
Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) is an evergreen tree with a distinctive drooping top, a narrow crown, and feathery, drooping branches. Needle-like leaves are green above, have two fine white lines below, and are blunt at the tip. They are different lengths and protrude out of the sides of twigs—giving them a flat appearance. Twigs are hairy and yellowish-green with peg-like bases where needles have fallen. Hemlock bark is silvery brown and furrowed, but not as deeply furrowed as Douglas fir. Pollen cones are yellow and are only 2–3 centimeters long. Seed cones are egg-shaped and ½ to 1 inch long with rounded scales. Seeds have a wing that can fly half a mile on the wind. Many people mistakenly think the hemlock tree is poisonous because it is confused with “poison hemlock,” an entirely different plant in the carrot family.
Hemlock is known as a “climax tree” in the Pacific Northwest because it can grow in full shade and outlives other trees that are dependent on sunlight. If untouched by humans or natural disaster, Northwest forests would be dark woodlands of giant hemlock. It has the densest canopy of any tree species in the west, and few understory plants can grow beneath it. Hemlock has the highest growth rate ever recorded and can reach 180 feet tall. It is the state tree in Washington, and is the most common forest tree in Alaska and on the north coast of British Columbia.
The limey-green spring tips of hemlock are edible and have a refreshing tart flavor. Nibble on some as you are taking a walk to ward off hunger and thirst. Add them to salads, sauces, pesto, and even cookies or ice cream for a forest-inspired treat.
Evergreen tree needles including hemlock, Douglas fir, and spruce are high in Vitamin C, antioxidants, and antimicrobial compounds—perfect medicine building resilience to fight off colds and flu. Try adding hemlock tips to your water bottle, or make a sun tea by blending hemlock with other flavorful herbs like fresh mint and lemon balm sprigs.
For a more medicinal tea, you can harvest hemlock needles for tea any time of year. Bundle branches with rubber bands and hang to dry in a warm place with good air circulation. You can also dry them in baskets or a dehydrator on a low setting. Once completely dry, needles will easily come off the branches. Use 1 tablespoon of tea per cup of boiled water and steep 15–20 minutes. They mix well with other herbs like rosehips and elderberries.
Hemlock is an important traditional medicine for Northwest Coastal Native Peoples. The boiled leaves and bark have long been used for treating tuberculosis, rheumatic fever, and hemorrhage. The pitch has antimicrobial and immune stimulating properties and can be used as a poultice on wounds and insect bites. It is also used as a salve for treating chest colds and to prevent sunburn. Hemlock bark tea is astringent and has been used to stop bleeding.
Learning from Hemlock – Humility
This common Coast Salish story about hemlock is often adapted based on what behaviors are causing challenges like not paying attention, bullying, or being pushy.
A long time ago, the Creator was giving the first cones to all the evergreen conifer trees with needles. The pines, true firs, hemlocks, and Douglas fir were all there, and they were told to line up. Western hemlock was not paying attention—he was playing by himself. By the time he realized it was time to line up, he was last, and he got the smallest cones of all the trees that were there. See the bent top? He still hangs his head with humility.
Having humility means that we are always learning and growing. Rather than defending ourselves or needing to be “right,” we can acknowledge that we make mistakes and are willing to learn new perspectives and skills. We can say, “I don’t know” when we don’t. Everyone—from children, to powerful leaders, to elders, is always learning. Through being humble, we can grow wiser and build healthy relationships with others.