Quick facts

Common name: western hemlock

Scientific name: Tsuga heterophylla

Family: Pinaceae

Origin: non-native

Broadly conical in habit with a narrow crown, mature trees can grow to 45m (taller in their native habitat), and have characteristic long, drooping branch tips. The bark is dark brown with rugged ridges.

Look out for: the needles along the sides of the twig which are longer than those on the top. Its crushed needles smell like grapefruit. Each needle has two white stripes on the underside. Cones are unstalked.

Identified in winter by: its evergreen features which are present year-round.

What does western hemlock look like?

Western hemlock needles with new growth close-up

Credit: Ernie Janes / Alamy Stock Photo

Leaves

Needle-like leaves are soft, flat, with rounded tips, and two white bands on the underside.

Western hemlock pinecone against a white background

Credit: Nature Photographers Ltd / WTML

Flowers

Cones are small and pendulous, with thin, flexible scales. Immature cones are green and mature to grey-brown, with thin, papery scales.

Not to be confused with:

Other planted hemlock-spruces. It is not related to the highly toxic herb hemlock, but shares its name due to the similar smell.

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Where to find western hemlock

Native to north-west America, western hemlock was introduced to Britain in the 19th century by botanist David Douglas, and is now one of the most common conifers found in the UK. Best suited to moister climates, western hemlock has rapid growth and regenerates freely in a wide range of upland forests.

Did you know?

In Alaska, boughs of western hemlock are used to collect herring eggs.

Value to wildlife

Western hemlock plantations are often very dark as they cast dense shade, which means very few plants or wildlife species can live beneath them.

Mythology and symbolism

In some ancient North-American traditions, western hemlock was an important herb for women. Among the Kwakwaka’wakw people, female warriors made head dresses from western hemlock for ceremonial dances.

Uses of western hemlock

It is mainly grown for timber and wood pulp in the UK, although it is also planted as an ornamental tree in parks and gardens. Western hemlock wood is commonly used for roofing and boxes as it holds nails well without splitting.

Did you know?

Queen Victoria loved western hemlock so much that she asked for its name to be changed to Tsuga albertiana, in honour of her husband, Albert. It stuck for a while but Tsuga heterophylla, is now used.