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The Nature of PEI

by Gary Schneider

Old growth hemlock (photo: Macphail Woods)There is something very special about a tree that can grow to be 450 years old. The original Acadian forest on Prince Edward Island would have had lots of trees that old, including eastern hemlock, white pine, sugar maple and yellow birch.

At this time of year, I often find myself taking a walk through one of the hemlock groves that are either at Macphail Woods or relatively close by. And as usual, the experience is humbling.

It is generally a tree of deep shade, of land that has never been cleared for agriculture. It can be a sizable tree, growing up to 70 feet tall and 3.5 feet in diameter. That amount of growth takes time, and can’t be rushed. The large specimens seem to exude patience.

Hemlock is a tree with a long history of human use in this province. The wood is resistant to rot, and was used for railway ties when we actually had trains criss-crossing the province. Many houses, and many more barns, were sided with hemlock boards. I remember tearing down a barn near Alliston that was sided in hemlock boards 16 feet long and 2 feet wide—the coverage of a sheet of plywood.

Indigenous peoples in the region used hemlock as a medicinal plant, including as an astringent tonic. The inner bark contains 12% tannin, and besides its medicinal uses, provided the tannic acid that was used to cure animal hides.

In more recent times, hemlock is often found along the banks of streams, where it flourishes due to the adequate supply of water and the rich soils. Commercially, it has little use, since the wood is not preferred as a building material and the trees are often too large to mill. Luckily, there is no pulp market for hemlock and we haven’t been turning it into low value wood chips. 

What makes these trees so special? To me, being in their presence is calming, and shows me a vision of what the forests of this province are capable of growing. Not just hemlock, of course, but many other species as well. In some ways, these large trees leave me yearning for a time when the woodlands of Prince Edward Island were healthy and diverse, and when inhabitants knew about using trees and the associated flora and fauna without destroying the forest.

But they also remind me of the beauty that surrounds us, and that in our own small way, we can help bring back some of that majesty. On a recent walk, I talked about how to tell a hemlock from a balsam fir. It is the shape of two trees that gives them away, even from a distance. Balsam fir branches are very horizontal and the leader grows straight up. Hemlock branches and leaders, on the other hand, are drooping and graceful. The new growth each year is soft and curves downward. But when the sap starts flowing the branches mostly straighten out and continue growing. In small trees, this is an easy characteristic to pick out. One guest on the walk looked at a young hemlock and decided that the gracefulness made it look humble. No showing off for these trees, even though they can achieve such huge height and girth.

The walks through hemlock groves always give me lots to think about. Besides being glorious places, for me at least they seem to exude calmness. If I was smarter, I believe they would have many lessons to teach me. Until that happens, I’ll simply rejoice in their splendour.

Gary Schneider is the founder and Supervisor of the Macphail Woods Ecological Forest Project and has a great interest in the natural history of Prince Edward Island.

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