This is a blog about the native conifers of the Pacific Northwest. It is a companion to the Northwest Conifers site. The blog will focus on timely and interesting details about our conifers, their connections to the rest of the environment, and our connection to them.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Focus on Mountain Hemlock

“My God. It’s full of stars.” This is what Dave Bowman exclaimed when he looked into the monolith orbiting Jupiter in the classic science fiction movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. If he had looked at a mountain hemlock, he might have said the same thing. The needles at the tips of the twigs often look like tiny stars with bright blue-white beams of needles radiating out from a point. The needles of other hemlocks tend to lie flat and have white stomatal bands only on the lower surface.

With complete disregard to any sense of order, the needles of mountain hemlock point in all directions. The needles are short like Western Hemlock, but they have white stomatal bands on both sides of the needle, often giving it a bluish color. The leader at the top of the tree curves and droops over like Western Hemlock. The cones of mountain hemlock are also distinctive. They are about two inches long, three times the size of other hemlocks. In fact, mountain hemlock is so different from other hemlocks that some botanists once thought that it was a hybrid between hemlock and spruce.

Tsuga Mertensiana is the scientific name of mountain hemlock. Tsuga is the Japanese name for hemlock.  The species name, mertensiana, comes from Karl H. Mertens, a German botanist, who first collected specimens in southeast Alaska while on a Russian expedition in 1827.

Mountain Hemlock grows in the higher elevations of the Cascades and Olympic Mountains, often at the timberline with subalpine fir and whitebark pine. Below the timberline, it sometimes grows in pure stands of large trees. However, at the timberline, it often remains a dwarf, creeping shrub, where winter snow flattens it to the ground. In these park-like settings, the hemlocks also grow in clumps, which contain one or more old, large trees and several young trees. The range of mountain hemlock extends into the High Sierras of California, where it grows at higher elevations, the northern Rocky Mountains, and along the coast of Alaska to Anchorage, where it grows down to sea level.

Mountain hemlock at Gnarl Ridge

As you gain elevation when hiking in the mountains of Oregon, you will see mountain hemlocks growing among the western hemlocks, starting at about 3500 feet elevation. By the time you reach 4500 feet, the western hemlocks give way to mountain hemlocks. However, you don’t have to drive up to the mountains to find mountain hemlocks. You can see them planted as ornamentals in urban areas. Look for the bluish color and the drooping top. They thrive even at lower elevations, but grow slowly, which makes them a fitting landscaping tree.

Mountain hemlock has little value as lumber. However, it is an important factor in watershed protection, a fact not lost on people in Portland, which gets its water from Bull Run Lake near Mt. Hood. The water from Bull Run is renowned for its purity, thanks to the mountain hemlock and other trees in the forest above the lake. We can also appreciate the scenic beauty of mountain hemlocks growing in and around grassy alpine meadows. You can see them at Paradise on the south slope of Mount Rainier, at Elk Meadows east of Mount Hood, in Jefferson Park on the north side of Mount Jefferson, and in the Three Sisters Wilderness.

John Muir was impressed by the contrast between its delicate appearance and its ability to thrive in the harshest conditions, spending the long, cold winter at the timberline under many feet of snow. “No other of our alpine conifers so finely veils its strength. Its delicate branches yield to the mountains' gentlest breath; yet is it strong to meet the wildest onsets of the gale,—strong not in resistance, but compliance, bowing, snow-laden, to the ground, gracefully accepting burial month after month in the darkness beneath the heavy mantle of winter…. Thus warmly wrapped they await the summer resurrection. (The Mountains of California, Ch 8 “The Forests”) Curiously some observers have noted that mountain hemlocks may need the protection of all this snow. The roots may freeze in cold environments where there is little snowfall. Heavy snowfall can insulate these delicate roots. John Muir called the mountain hemlock “... ineffably beautiful, the very loveliest of all the American conifers.” (The Yosemite, Ch. 6) Mountain hemlock is one of my favorites, too. Look for them the next time you’re up in the mountains or shopping at a local nursery.

See also
Focus on Westerm Hemlock

More info on mountain hemlock
Gymnosperm Database


  1. Love this blog. Its been my homepage for some time now and I get so excited everytime there is a new posting. Thank you for keeping it up.

    1. Thanks, Riley. I hope to be more regular with new posts. I want to do focus posts on the rest of the conifers in the Pacific Northwest.

  2. One of my favorite conifers. Now I want to go for a mountain hike!

    1. Yes, I'm missing hiking up near the timberline, too!