This is the second in my series of posts about magical trees native to the Americas. In this series of posts, I explore the lore of sacred trees, describe their magical and mundane uses, edible qualities, medicinal qualities. Other posts in this series include Walnut, American Beech, Sugar Maple, Eastern White Cedar, Hawthorn, and Hickory. This post focuses on the mighty Eastern hemlock tree. The term “hemlock” refers to both a tree (tsuga) with edible and medicinal qualities as well as an extremely poisonous plant (poison hemlock, conium maculatum found in watery areas)–so please don’t get them confused! I’ll be focusing on one type of hemlock tree today, the Eastern Hemlock (tsuga canadensis, also known as the Canada Hemlock or Hemlock Spruce), of which I have much deep experience.
I’ve always been close to the hemlock tree—in the heat of the summer, I find shade beneath her soft branches. In the cold of the winter, she offers spaces where the snow isn’t deep, dry places to sit, and a warm trunk to lean against. She towers over all the other trees in the forest, showing me a way forward and helping me get my bearings when I am lost. When I attended the OBOD East Coast Gathering for the first time four years ago, there she was, greeting me as I entered the forest, as she greets me as I enter nearly every forest of my homeland of western PA. Even when I enter meditations, the hemlock is there to greet me in my inner grove. I even discovered her in Michigan lately, in state lands along the edge of Lake Huron–which was a treat and honor.
Hemlock is a tree who, due to her longevity, holds our histories and stories–as the author of The Hemlock Tree, and Its Legends from 1959 suggests in this segment of poem:
“A monument of bygone days,
I’ve kept the place where now I grow;
And, over all my head did raise
Above a thousand years ago
“What mighty changes in that space!
What revolutions on the earth!
What strange events have taken place!
What wonders! Since I date my birth!
“Of these I have laid up a store,
And at your service they shall be;
When you would think on days of yore
Come sit beneath the Hemlock tree.
“In every branch I have a tongue,
I have a voice in every breeze;
And when I speak to old or young;
My aim is to instruct and please.” (pp. 16-17)
About the Hemlock: Hemlock trees are majestic, long-lived conifer trees. They are found in cool, wet, and dark forests throughout lower Canada, parts of the Midwest, and throughout the East Coast. They are often found near bodies of water, for they like it cool and damp. Hemlocks will always be found in a cooler microclimate—this is how you can tell cool vs. hot areas of a forest (which can be useful for say, mushroom foraging). They are very shade tolerant and like humidity, but do not do well where it is dry or hot. Hemlocks can also handle snow and ice much better than other kinds of conifers—their flexible branches and feathery needles allow snow to sit, their branches to bend and bow, but not break. This creates shelter below.
Eastern Hemlock trees are the largest native evergreen conifer in the Eastern USA. The Eastern Native Tree Society has measured hemlocks over 170 feet tall with trunks up to 5 feet across. These sacred trees often live to 400-500 years (assuming they aren’t logged, which unfortunately happens frequently in their growth range), with the oldest ones living up to 1000 years. While they start off as understory trees (trees that live in the shady understory of a forest) they eventually become the tallest tree in the forest, pushing out from the shady understory and dominating the landscape. On the mountain where my parents live in South-Western PA, you can literally look at the hemlock grove situated at the bottom of the mountain, and the hemlocks are nearly eye level with you while the other species of trees (birch, maple, beech, hickory, and cherry) grow far below.
Hemlock trees form an important part of the web of life, by providing forage and shelter for deer and other wildlife and oil-rich seeds (found in their cones) for birds. The tree produces male and female cones on the same branch. The hemlock tree, with its unity of the masculine and feminine on its branches, teaches us an important lesson of balance. Its needles further emphasize the druidic principle of three—the needles spend three years on the tree before dropping to the forest floor and adding to the rich hummus there.
If you have ever entered a grove of hemlocks, you will find this to be the darkest, shadiest part of the forest. But it has a different quality to it, a deeper quality. This is because hemlocks cast very dense shade; their canopies filter out different kinds of light, creating a “blue shade” (different from a “green shade” created by deciduous trees). Mosquitoes do seem drawn to this kind of shade though, especially in the hot summer months!
Risks and Challenges: Hemlocks are currently under significant threat from Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, an aphid-like sap sucking insect that has decimated hemlock populations in the Appalachian/East Coast region of the USA. Wooly Adelgid was brought through careless actions from Asia; where it does no serious damage to Hemlocks there. Here, however, our hemlocks are not adapted to resisting this insect. The hemlock is an important reminder of the delicate balance of our ecosystems, and our need to preserve and protect our native lands.
Despite their longevity, hemlocks have low tolerance for pollution, roadside salt application, root system disruption, or wind exposure. Another lesson the hemlock teaches us is that the right conditions must be present for long, healthy lives, and exposure to things that are supporting us, rather than harming us or disturbing our tender roots.
Native American Lore: I have studied Native American lore for understanding the Hemlock tree mainly because the western herbal and esoteric traditions don’t speak of the trees I am studying. In fact, I couldn’t find any mention of hemlock in any of traditional magical herbal books that I own–yet we know this tree has lore and traditions very much important to understanding the tree’s sacred qualities.
The Hemlock tree features prominently in Native American legends, particularly those of the Seneca and Micmac peoples. In examining the native tales, several themes emerge with regards to hemlock trees. These themes can teach us about the sacred relationship that humans have had with the hemlock tree in the past, and what magical qualities this tree embodies:
- Hemlocks as a means of warmth and heat: In the Seneca story “Okteondo and his Uncle” and “Hótho,” the hemlock is featured as a means of warmth. In “Okteondo and his Uncle” hemlock boughs are used in the story to keep warm at night—both for shelter and for sleeping upon. In “Hótho,” the cold (Hótho) attempts to conquer a man who is out hunting. The man builds a fire and makes a huge kettle of hemlock tea—while the cold pressed in around him all night, the fire and the tea kept him warm and allowed him to overcome the cold. In the Micmac story “The Adventures of the Great Hero Puloweach, or the Partridge” Pulowech encounters two evil magicians who attempt to roast him to death in a cavern. Their fires are fed with hemlock bark. Puloweach ends up roasting them with his own blazing hemlock bark fire.
- Hemlock as an aid to magical transformation: A Haida legend, “How Raven Brought Light to the World,” raven transforms himself into a single hemlock needle, which is drank by a young woman who then grows pregnant with Raven. Raven transforms himself into a tiny human infant, and is born into the world. An Aleut legend, “Princess Raven” likewise, has raven transforming himself into a hemlock needle, which is willingly swallowed by a princess and the princess grows the wings of a raven and the two become one. In the Seneca legend, “A Little Boy and his Dog, Beautiful Ears” a house is built of hemlock boughs. The mother who lives in the house seems to go crazy and burns her house down, but then uses the ash of the hemlock and throws it into the air to summon a snowstorm to cover her children and keep them warm.
- Hemlock magically growing from a needle and offering aid: In the Micmac story “Of the Surprising and Singular Adventures of two Water Fairies who were also Weasels and how they each became a Bride of a Star” two sisters are taken away to the land of the stars and given husbands. They wish to return to the earth, and they are told to lay still and sleep. When they awaken, they are back on earth, at the top of a majestic hemlock tree. In several Seneca myths (including “A Raccoon Story,” “Mink and his Uncle,” and “Uncle and Nephew,” characters in the story use hemlock trees grown through magical means as an escape route. In “A Raccoon Story,” a young man is caught on a cliff and has no way down—he pulls a hemlock needle from his pocket and sings to the needle and a mighty hemlock grows to save him. In the other two tales, stranded individuals (another one on a cliff and one in a deep ravine) vomit, find a hemlock needle in the vomit, and sing the tree into existence to save them. (I’m not sure what the significance of the vomit is in these tales…any ideas?).
- Hemlock as Holding the Winter at Bay: In “How Conifers Show the Promise of Spring” the White Pine, who the Seneca and other tribes view as the chief of trees and first trees, calls his tribe to stand with him when winter comes. Hemlock (as well as red pine, cedar, cypress, juniper, spruce, balsam, and even the oak) all answer his call and overcome the difficult winter months. (BTW, this is one of my favorite Native American myths featuring trees, and well worth reading–especially if you are a conifer or oak tree fan!)
In addition to the mythology, Hemlock branches were used for ceremonial purposes, including ceremonial clothing and in the construction of sweat lodges (according to the Makah legend)
Wood Uses: Hemlock wood, which is soft and light colored, is often used for building crates, used for wood pulp, and as railroad ties. It was important in the settling of Pennsylvania, where it was used for building log cabins and for roofing and framing.
Arts and Crafts: The bark of the Eastern Hemlock has been used in leather tanning due to its high tannin content. Hemlock cones, small and plentiful, can also be used for natural arts and crafts. It produces a soft wood good for wand making—you can find many wands, ready to use, on the lower branches (the wood goes a grayish white and becomes very smooth on the tree). The inner bark of a Hemlock, when boiled, can produce a pink dye.
Hemlocks, like other conifers, produce sap (resin), which can be burnt by itself as a delightful incense or mixed into other blends. In my experience, hemlock resin is a bit harder to find–it is not as plentiful as some other conifer trees (say, like white pine who oozes from every crook and crannie). If you find a wounded hemlock, specifically wounded on the trunk, this is usually where the resin will be found. The resin is very light smelling when burnt—it has a clear piney-smell with lemony undertones, very refreshing.
Herbal / Medicinal Qualities. Matthew Wood covers Hemlock in his Earthwise Herbal: New World Plants book. He describes hemlock has warming and astringent qualities, and comparing this to native American lore, we can see that this is an incredibly warming tree (with much association with fire). In the 19th century, Wood describes how, it was also known to treat the kidneys, lower back, tendons, and ligaments.
The other important medicinal aspect of hemlock is that its dead wood is a host to reishi mushrooms (which I blogged about earlier this year). Reishi is one of the most important medicinal mushrooms we can find in these regions. Even in its death, the hemlock continues to produce its healing.
Food and Forage: Hemlock needles, especially young needles, make a fabulous tea. The inner bark can also be dried and ground up for a thickening agent or flour. The hemlock bark, when rubbed on the body, can help hunters mask their scent when hunting. Here are a few recopies that I’ve used and enjoyed:
- Hemlock Needle Tea: Hemlock needle tea can be brewed any time of the year, although the green needles appearing in springtime make the best tea. This tea, like all conifer teas, is rich in Vitamin C. To make the tea, take 7 small branches of hemlock. Crush them up a bit with your hands or use a mortar and pestle. Steep the needles in 1 cup boiling water and wait 15 – 20 minutes. Enjoy hot or over ice. Sweeten the tea to taste with sugar. You can also combine it with other tree teas: white pine, black birch, or maple sap water (maple water and hemlock branches were used by the Iroquois as a beverage). The tea will not be dark—it will stay like a ghostly tea drink—but it is flavorful and warming. (You can also use hemlock in my sacred tree brew as a substitute for white pine).
- Hemlock Tips: In the springtime, hemlock trees will produce light green tips (like most other conifers). You can nibble on these tips as a trailside snack (they have a slight pine/lemony flavor). I have read that you can also use them to add interest and flavor in an beer brew, using the same kind of recipe one would use for spruce tip beer (I haven’t personally tried this since I don’t really drink, but its good to know!)
Closing thoughts about hemlock: Hemlock continues to be a tree that amazes me—each time I am in the presence of the Hemlock, I am transformed, warmed, and aided. Seek these trees out, and see what other lessons they can teach. Find them in the summer or the winter–they will always be ready to speak their tales.
- Trees of Michigan, Linda Kershaw, 2006, Lone Pine Publishing, Auburn WA.
- Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants, Matthew Wood, 2009. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA.
- Native American Food Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Daniel E. Moerman. Timber Press, Portand, OR, 2010.
- The Hemlock Tree and its Legends. Robert Bradbury. Philadelphia, PA: Black Horse Alley, 1959.
- The Book of Forest and Thicket: Trees, Shrubs, and Wildflowers of Eastern North America, John Eastman. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole books.
- First People – The Legends. http://www.firstpeople.us/ (individual legends linked above).
*Special thanks to my mother, Bonnie, for taking these fabulous photos of hemlocks for me!