Hemlock was named by Europeans after a similar-smelling weed but is not at all related to the poisonous hemlock that killed Socrates.
The Japanese term feels much more appropriate, “Tsuga” meaning “tree mother.” The needles are softer and more rounded (more feminine?) than others in the trilogy of native forest trees (Western redcedar, Douglas fir, and Western hemlock). Heterophylla refers to the different size needles on a single branch.
The Western hemlock also happens to be the State Tree of Washington State. They love shade and have a shallow root structure, so they often are the first tree to sprout up atop rotting trunks or fallen logs.
The Western hemlock’s cones are my favorite to find in the woods, as something fairy tree spirits might create.
Here is a “telephone game” version (meaning I can’t vouch for its accuracy) of a Pacific NW Native legend I heard about how the hemlock got its small cones and floppy top.
When all the old trees were being awarded cones, the hemlock pushed others around to get to the front of the line of trees. It was punished by being given the smallest cones and sent to the back of the line. It now hangs its head in shame.
The trunk looks similar to but more silver to me than Douglas firs. Now that I have learned a bit about many of the important native trees in my Pacific Northwest home, I feel surrounded by friends everywhere I go. Recognition feels halfway to friendship. Once again I marvel at the grace of being able to live surrounded by these older beautiful beings.