Mountain hemlocks grow tough, beautiful

The next time you see mountain hemlocks, stop and admire their gnarled forms.

Their weathered beauty comes from the high life on mountains — marked by wind and heavy snowfall — which makes the wood of these slow-growing trees knotty and dense. Some mountain hemlocks have existed for 800 years.

The trees are found in mid to high elevations in the mountains from Alaska down to California and east to Montana. In Washington, they can be found in the Olympic and Cascades mountain ranges.

In many of the places where they grow, the snow doesn’t melt until July or August.

Mountain hemlocks can grow up to 132 feet with a diameter of 2½ to 3½ feet. Their branches droop but tilt upward at the tips. Their dark reddish-brown bark is thick and deeply lined.

In the pollenation stage, mountain hemlock cones are bluish. In the seed stage, its cones are shades of purples, ranging from light to deep. The wind sends their winged seeds out into the world.

Hemlock needles are tough and wiry, with their own pretty shape.

“It almost looks like a starburst, like rays coming out,” says naturalist David Bean, program coordinator for Whatcom County Parks and Recreation.

Sources: “Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast,” edited by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon; Julie L. Tesky in U.S. Forest Service Fire Effects Information System; The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture