Monday, November 2, 2015

Eatern Hemlock casts its bread upon the waters

Eastern hemlock is our second local native conifer, after white pine.  White pine put on a coordinated show: the cones of all the local trees darkened and opened over less than a week in late August--as if a switch had been thrown.  Then the trees shed declining numbers of seeds for weeks afterward. 

Eastern hemlock is about as common as white pine, since people plant them as shrubs as well as trees, and even make hedges of them.  (In its own environment the eastern hemlock is a majestic wild tree; it saddens me to see so many crowded into gardens and cut into unnatural shapes by suburbanites wielding hedge trimmers.)  But eastern hemlock does things a little differently.

 October 8th.  Green cones, with a few of last years' at the bottom.

 Only a few days later the cones have darkened to a brown or purple-gray color.

I watched the tiny green cones hanging amongst others left over from last year, waiting for something to happen.  Nothing seemed to change.  Then, all at once, on October 8th, the cones turned a light brown.  A week later the scales at the ends of some of the cones could be seen to have spread open.  In the weeks since, nearly all the cones have fully or almost fully opened.  This makes hemlock over a month later than white pine.

Wanting to supplement the one eastern hemlock in my yard (planted perhaps fifteen years ago and now almost five feet tall), I pulled down some cones and harvested the seeds.  I got a total of 30 plump seeds from seven cones that had perhaps twenty-four scales.  I'm sure most of the viable seed had already fallen from these cones.  The tree I took them from had several neighbors to supply pollen, so I'd expect the lot of them to have great reproductive success.

Cones and seeds are both tiny compared to the white pine at bottom.  Eastern hemlock also has very different needles: while white pine's are long and slender and borne in fives, those of eastern hemlock are short, flat needles with a double white stripe on the underside.

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