Hemlock (eastern hemlock, as it is properly called) is a tree of some distinction, and worth getting to know more closely. It grows straight and tall; the largest hemlock on record measures 165 feet in height, and another famous specimen had a trunk seven feet thick. Hemlock shows a pyramidal shape, much like spruce from a distance, with an elegant taper. Flexible branches slope downward and out at a gentle angle from the trunk and turn upward at the ends with elegance, like the fingers of a South Indian dancer; this is the way they bend without resistance and shed accumulated snow. Young hemlock tops aren’t stiff like other conifers but yield gracefully under the pressure of snowdrifts. This soft supple quality distinguishes hemlock from spruce and fir, its forest-mates, whose bristly needles and firm branches we experience every Christmas. Hemlock foliage has been described as airy, feathery, delicate, fine. From a distance the tree has the feel of a soft green cloud.
A lot of people associate “hemlock” with poison. Socrates drank hemlock and died, and we’ve never heard the last of it. In fact, there is a plant called poison hemlock, Conium maculatum, a weedy flower about three feet high that looks something like the common Queen Anne’s lace. It grows by water margins, roadsides and waste land throughout North America and the Old World. The seeds and leaves bear a toxic compound much like South American arrow poisons. It causes death by disrupting the workings of the central nervous system: an ascending muscular paralysis gradually reaches the respiratory muscles, which results in death due to lack of oxygen to the heart and brain.
~ The man . . . laying his hands upon him and after a while examined his feet and legs, then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it. He said “No”; then after that, his thighs; and passing upwards in this way he showed us that he was growing cold and rigid. And then again he touched him and said that when it reached his heart, he would be gone. The chill had now reached the region about the groin, and
uncovering his face, which had been covered, he said – and these were his last words – “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Pay it and do not neglect it.” “That,” said Crito, “shall be done; but see if you have anything else to say.” To this question he made no reply, but after a little while he moved; the attendant uncovered him; his eyes were fixed. And Crito when he saw it, closed his mouth and eyes.¹ ~
So here we have a tall, handsome, deep-green tree of the dense forest – an eighty-foot-tall plant that can live for nine hundred years – sharing its name with a scrawny two-foot annual weed of damp pastures (and a lethally poisonous one at that!)
Rural Northerners know one hemlock from another, even though city people might get nervous about a hike through the hemlock woods. Robert Frost wrote, “The way a crow/ Shook down on me/ A weight of snow/ From a hemlock tree// Has given my heart/ A change of mood/ And saved some part/ Of a day I had rued.” A student asked Frost about this sweetly quiet winter scene: “What did you mean by
such a sinister image?” Frost was puzzled, and the student explained, “You know, the black crow, the poison hemlock…” Frost, Yankee to the bone, made some sharp observations about people from away and left it at that.
But how did such different plants get the same name? For years writers have speculated that the tree’s needles resemble the plant’s leaves (they don’t), or that its foliage smells like the plant when crushed (it doesn’t). Evidently these guys didn’t get out in the woods much. The answer is deeper and more interesting – it takes us into the minds of the American colonists, and even further back to the Saxon occupiers of England more than a thousand years ago. The Anglo-Saxons’ name for the poisonous streamside weed was hemlike, a combination of “hem” (a border or margin) and “lik” (a leafy plant) – literally a “leek” that grows on the “hem” of the land. The plant was notable for its wildness and its ill-will towards humans – it grew on wet wasteland unfit for human gardening, encroached on productive fields, and poisoned
their browsing cattle. Other plants were beautiful, blessed, obedient to the human hand, helpful in our God-given work to improve the Earth and make it a garden. Other plants lived under our care and settled happily on our fields and forests. This hemlock was otherwise – a contrary creature growing in useless and accursed places, resistant to our care, deceiving our cattle, and contributing only death. The hemlock plant epitomized evil.
The British newcomers to North America found the poison hemlock herb growing here; they called it what it was and regarded it the same way as had their forebears. They found the hemlock tree problematic, though, because it didn’t grow in Europe. It was clearly a conifer, and back in Britain any conifer was loosely called a “fir,” sometimes even the indigenous Scots pine. But how to distinguish the new species from the true fir, a familiar timber tree that grew on both continents? To choose a name, the British did what they had done a few centuries earlier when England began importing Baltic wood for ships
and buildings. The fine tall timber of Latvia and Prussia was a “fir” of a variety unknown in Britain, and so they had called it “Prussian fir,” “pruce fir,” and eventually “spruce.” In like manner, this new “fir” of the Americas became “hemlock fir,” or “hemlock pine.”
They called the tree “hemlock” because it was accursed. Other conifers milled out as clean, clear boards and timbers; this new wood, compared to pine and spruce, was rough-textured, splintery, and tended to warp. Other conifers grew on broad uplands and slopes where the human hand could be turned to productive lumbering and farming; this contrary tree seemed to prefer cold gullies, northern slopes, and terrains that resisted cultivation, wild marginal landscapes hostile to the civilizing mission of the farmer. In the world of trees it was a perverse sinner living in a godless place . . . just like the poison hemlock in the world of plants.
Every kind of tree had its own moral character in those days. Oak, walnut, and chestnut were generous in feeding the farmer’s livestock,
and strong and helpful for tool-making. Ash was beneficent in providing good firewood and straight-grained timber, and gave shade to cattle in the summer sun. The evergreen boughs of the “priestly” cedar served to remind humans of everlasting life (and so was planted in graveyards), but also brought welcome cash to the farmstead as homemade shingles went to market. Pine was king – straight grained, huge in diameter and height, growing everywhere, immensely valuable in the boards it provided. Trees like these represented virtues of dignity, strength, productiveness, religiosity, or courage, according to the temperament of the species. Think of phrases like “hearts of oak,” or “Old Hickory.”
Always, though, Americans found those trees most beautiful that indicated the most fertile soil. In selecting a good farm, you would draw on the tree lore of several European nations, as well as locally acquired knowledge of tree habitat, to help you recognize good land for husbandry. The virtuous trees favored the same land humans did.
¹ Plato. Phaedo, 117e-118a. In Plato, with an English translation by H.N.Fowler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966.
Chris Marshall studies the historical ecology of land-human interactions on the Maine frontier. He is a retired Unity College professor.
The Hemlock Ecosystem Management Study is a multi-year study of how the loss of eastern hemlock trees affects ecosystems and people in Maine. The project is directed by four primary faculty members: Amy Arnett and Erika Latty from the Center for Biodiversity; and Kathleen Dunckel and Brent Bibles from the Center for Natural Resource Management and Protection with assistance from Unity College students.