Herb: Western Hemlock

Latin name: Tsuga heterophylla

Synonyms: Tsuga albertiana

Family: Pinaceae (Pine Family)

Medicinal use of Western Hemlock:

Western hemlock was commonly employed medicinally by several native North American Indian tribes who used it to treat a variety of complaints. It is little, if at all, used in modern herbalism. The bark is astringent, diaphoretic and diuretic. A decoction of the pounded bark has been used in the treatment of haemorrhages, tuberculosis and syphilis. The boiled bark, combined with liquorice fern (Polypodium glyccyrhiza), has been used in the treatment of haemorrhages. An infusion of the inner bark or twigs is helpful in the treatment of kidney or bladder problems. It can also be used as a good enema for treating diarrhoea and as a gargle or mouthwash for mouth and throat problems. Externally, it can be used as a wash on sores and ulcers. A poultice of the plant has been applied to bleeding wounds. A moxa of the twigs has been used to get rid of warts. The powdered bark can be put into shoes for tender or sweaty feet or for foot odour. The gum obtained from the trunk has been applied to cuts. It has been applied to the skin to prevent chapping and sunburn. A poultice of the chewed leaves has been used in the treatment of burns.

Description of the plant:


70 m
(230 feet)

to May

Habitat of the herb:

Forests, especially where moist and especially in deep forests.

Edible parts of Western Hemlock:

Inner bark - raw or cooked. It can be dried, ground into a powder and then used as a thickening in soups etc or mixed with cereals when making bread. It has also been used as a sweetener for other foods. The inner bark was often cooked and then dried for use in the winter. At its best in spring, it was one of the staple foods of the Alaskan Indians. An emergency food, it is only used when all else fails. The leaves and twigs yield "spruce oil", used commercially to flavour chewing gum, soft drinks, ice cream etc. Pitch, obtained from crevices in the bark, has been chewed as a gum. The leaves and young shoots have been chewed as an emergency food to keep one alive when lost in the woods. A herbal tea is made from the leaves and shoot tips. These tips are also an ingredient of "spruce beer".

Other uses of the herb:

Yields a resin similar to Abies balsamea, it is gathered by incisions in the trunk or by boiling the wood. The bark contains 8 - 18% tannin and is a major source of tannin in America. A reddish-brown dye is obtained from the bark. A decoction of the bark has been used to clean rust off iron and steel. A pitch (called hemlock pitch), is obtained by distillation of the young branches. The pitch is rubbed on the hair to get rid of head lice. Tolerant of light trimming, plants can be grown as a hedge. This species makes a good hedge in Britain. Wood - light, hard, tough, easy to work. Commercially superior to other members of this genus, it is an important tree for construction, the outside of buildings etc and for carving into spoons etc. It is also a major source of pulp. The wood makes a slow-burning fuel and so can be used to bank up a fire to keep it burning overnight.

Propagation of Western Hemlock:

Seed - it germinates better if given a short cold stratification and so is best sown in a cold frame in autumn to late winter. It can also be sown in early spring, though it might not germinate until after the next winter. If there is sufficient seed, an outdoor sowing can be made in spring. Pot-grown seedlings are best potted up into individual pots once they are large enough to handle - grow them on in a cold frame and plant them out in early summer of the following year. Trees transplant well when they are up to 80cm tall, but they are best put in their final positions when they are about 30 - 45 cm or less tall, this is usually when they are about 5 - 8 years old. Larger trees will check badly and hardly put on any growth for several years. This also badly affects root development and wind resistance.

Cultivation of the herb:

Forests, especially where moist and especially in deep forests.

Known hazards of Tsuga heterophylla:

None known

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.