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Hemlock in North Carolina

Until recently, hemlock trees were some of the largest and most common trees in the N.C. mountains.  Amicably nicknamed the “redwood of the East”, these long-lived, towering trees once gave western N.C. its familiar, forested look.

Unfortunately, an invasive insect threatens the continued existence of hemlocks in the eastern U.S.  The hemlock woolly adelgid is an aphid-like insect that is native to Asia.  It was first detected in the eastern U.S. in the early 1950s in Virginia and has since spread throughout the range of hemlock.  It has already caused the death of millions of hemlocks, only leaving domineering dead hemlocks, or ‘gray ghosts’, across the mountainous terrain.

As a keystone species, hemlocks play significant and vital roles within their environments.  Hemlock ecosystems are known for the distinct microclimates they create along mountain streams and inclines throughout the eastern U.S.  Brook and brown trout thrive in watersheds with hemlock forests and the hemlock canopy serves as an irreplaceable habitat and foraging site for many birds, especially neotropical migratory birds.  Hemlocks are browsed by and provide bedding shelter to deer in the winter, they serve as cavity trees to bears, and they are associated with more than 100 other vertebrates and countless invertebrates.  Hemlock ecosystems are truly a unique aspect to our forests that, once gone, will have irreversible cascading effects.

There are two species of hemlocks in the eastern U.S.: eastern and Carolina hemlocks.  Eastern hemlock are shade-tolerant and major components of old-growth forest communities across much of the mountainous regions of the eastern U.S. and into Canada.  Carolina hemlock has a much smaller distribution, with approximately 80% of its range within N.C.  Both can live for hundreds of years, making them a mainstay of eastern forests. 

Dead hemlocks have been given the nickname of “gray ghosts” and are a reminder of the once dominant and beautiful hemlock forests of the eastern U.S.

Contact your county forest ranger if you're interested in managing your land for hemlock.

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