Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Trees by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Trees by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Hemlock

Teacher's Story

"O'er lonely lakes that wild and nameless lie,

Black, shaggy, vast and still as Barca's sands

A hemlock forest stands. Oh forest like a pall!

Oh hemlock of the wild, Oh brother of my soul

I love thy mantle black, thy shaggy bole,

Thy form grotesque, thy spreading arms of steel."


dropcap image N its prime, the hemlock is a magnificent tree. It reaches the height of from sixty to one hundred feet, is cone-shaped, its fine, dense foliage and its drooping branches giving to its appearance exquisite delicacy; and I have yet to see elsewhere such graceful tree-spires as are the hemlocks of the Sierras, albeit they have bending tips. However, an old hemlock becomes very ragged and rugged in appearance; and dying, it rears its wind-broken branches against the sky, a gaunt figure of stark loneliness.

The hemlock branches are seldom broken by snow; they droop to let the burden slide off. The bark is reddish, or sometimes gray, and is furrowed into wide, scaly ridges. The foliage is a rich dark green, but whitish when seen from below. The leaves of the hemlock are really arranged in a spiral, but this is hard to demonstrate. They look as though they were arranged in double rows along each side of the little twig; but they are not in the same plane and there is usually a row of short leaves on the upper side of the twig. The leaf is blunt at the tip and has a little petiole of its own which distinguishes it from the leaves of any other species of conifer; it is dark, glossy green above, pale green beneath, marked with two white, lengthwise lines. In June, the tip of every twig grows and puts forth new leaves which are greenish yellow in color, making the tree very beautiful and giving it the appearance of blossoming. The leaves are shed during the third year. The hemlock cones are small and are borne on the tips of the twigs. The seeds are borne, two beneath each scale, and they have wings nearly as large as the scale itself. Squirrels are so fond of them that probably but few have an opportunity to try their wings. The cones mature in one year, and usually fall in the spring. The hemlock blossoms in May; the pistillate flowers are very difficult to observe as they are tiny and greenish and are placed at the tip of the twig. The pollen-bearing flowers are little, yellowish balls on delicate, short stems, borne along the sides of the twig.

Hemlock bark is rich in tannin and is used in great quantities for the tanning of leather. The timber, which is coarse-grained, is stiff and is used in framing buildings and for railroad ties; nails and spikes driven into it cling with great tenacity and the wood does not split in nailing. Oil distilled from the leaves of hemlock is used as an antiseptic.

The dense foliage of the hemlock offers a shelter to birds of all kinds in winter; even the partridges roost in the young trees. These young trees often have branches drooping to the ground, making an evergreen tent which forms a winter harbor for mice and other beasties. The seed-eating birds which remain with us during the winter, feed upon the seeds; and as the cones grow on the tips of the delicate twigs, the red squirrels display their utmost powers as acrobats when gathering this, their favorite food.


Hemlock branch showing young and mature cones.

Lesson CCIV

The Hemlock

Leading thought—This is one of the most common and useful and beautiful of our evergreen trees. Its fine foliage makes it an efficient winter shelter for birds.

Method—Ask the children the questions and request them to make notes on the hemlock trees of the neighborhood. The study of the leaves and the cones may be made in the schoolroom.


1. Where does the hemlock tree grow in your neighborhood? What is the general shape of the tree? What sort of bark has it? How tall does it grow? How are its branches arranged to shed the snow?

2. What is the color of the foliage? How are the leaves arranged on the twigs? Are all the leaves of about the same size? What is the position of the smaller leaves?

3. Break off a leaf and describe its shape; its petiole. Does the leaf of any other evergreen have a petiole? What is the color and marking of the hemlock leaf above? Below? At what time of year are the new leaves developed? How does the hemlock tree look at this time? Does the hemlock ever shed its leaves?

4. Are the hemlock cones borne on the tip of the twigs or along the side? How long does it take a cone to mature? When does it fall? How many scales has it? Where are the seeds borne? How many seeds beneath each scale? Describe and sketch a hemlock seed. How are the seeds scattered? Study the tree in May, and see if you can find the blossom.

5. Make drawings of the following: The hemlock twig, showing the arrangement of the leaves; single leaf, enlarged; cone; cone scale; seed.

6. What creatures feed upon the hemlock seed? What birds find protection in the hemlock foliage in winter?

7. For what purposes is hemlock bark used? What is the timber good for? Is a nail easily pulled out from a hemlock board?

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