Socrates May Have Liked These Hemlocks
Most of us have heard the story of Socrates and his untimely death, at age 70. Standing before a jury and fellow Athenians, Socrates was sentenced to death in 339 BC. His anti-democratic views and impious acts lead to a guilty decision, a vote of 280 to 220, thus providing a suicide story for the ages. What most people don’t realize however is that the poison hemlock consumed was not the evergreen type, Tsuga, but rather a deadly, poisonous herb of the Apiaceae family, Conium maculatum. Mistaken for fennel, parsley or wild carrot, poison hemlock has tiny white flowers clustered in umbels. Native to Europe and the Mediterranean poison hemlock, when crushed, emits a rank, unpleasant odor not the anise or liquorice smells associated with the likes of fennel. Evergreen types of Hemlock look nothing like the herbaceous types.
Tsuga Canadensis, Canadian (Eastern) Hemlock, has long been a staple for the industry because of their tolerance to shady locations. Eastern Hemlocks, left to their own devices, can achieve heights of 50+ feet and 25+ in width. An exception to the rule, this conifer can be planted close to one another with hopes of creating a dense hedge line. However, spruce varieties can not achieve the same results. A candidate for moist, not saturated, areas Hemlocks have gorgeous leaf color complete with dark greens and two glaucous bands underneath. Suitable wherever drainage is good, keep the parent plant and its offspring away from windy areas and be considerate during times of drought.
Cultivars available to gardeners today are plentiful, exciting and diverse. Options include mounding, columnar, variegated, prostrate and globose types. One cultivar that I am asked about time and again, especially by those who visit our home, is Tsuga canadensis ‘Albospica’. A treemendous open growing hemlock which has snowy, white- tipped leaves almost the entire year. This unique attribute stands out against its darker, more mature, foliage. Planted on the north side of our home is a grove of them defining a corner and embedding the glorious earth tones and exfoliating, puzzle-like bark of a Stewartia pseudocamellia (Japanese Stewartia). The texture and colors that the two offer are only heightened with an occasional snowfall. Cultivated since 1866 and still going strong. Another one of the variegated types and often confused with ‘Albospica’ is Tsuga c. ‘Gentsch White’. A variegated globe which also offers white branch tips. Suitable for container gardening or as a small punctuation amongst your foundation plantings, this one benefits from routine pruning. We have Otto Gentsch in Long Island, New York to thank for this one. To round out the white-tipped cultivars that I am in favor of is Tsuga c. ‘Frostie’. Phenomenal white foliage with thin branches enhances its delicate texture, lending itself again to shade gardening. Look for slight pink winter markings as an added bonus. For those of you looking for yellow in your garden, enjoy the bright gold markings on stiffly held branches of Tsuga c. ‘Aurea Compacta’. This dwarf upright form is also known as ‘Everitt’s Golden’. Finally, a variety for those in search of a vertical accent suitable for planters or as a low maintenance hedge or screen is Tsuga c. ‘Monler’ (Emerald Fountain). Emerald Fountain has a dense branching structure creating a columnar evergreen. Retaining its dark green foliage throughout the winter, ‘Monler’ finishes nicely at 6 to 10 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide making it suitable for most gardens.
Native from Nova Scotia to Minnesota Canadian Hemlocks have recently been the target of some negative publicity. Woolly Adelgid has severely limited the planting, marketability and growing of hemlocks. This aphidlike insect has posed a serious threat to the hemlock population for some 80+ years. Known in New Jersey since 1978 where they were first found in Medford, Burlington County. Alas, there is hope. Bayer Advanced Tree & Shrub insect control, 1.47% Merit, is an easy “mix and pour” at the base of a tree solution. So start rejuvenating the hemlock population today.