N.C. Forest Service grows hemlock seedlings for the first time; limited supply available for sale March 4

by | Feb 27, 2019

Craig Lawing and Brian Heath (N.C. Forest Service) protect the three large hemlocks near the Stevens Nature Center at Hemlock Bluffs. By using a soil drench method, roots drink up the chemical and disburse it throughout the tree, protecting it for years to come. In all, 110 hemlocks were treated at Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve in April 2018. Image: K. Oten, NCFS.

The N.C. Forest Service Nursery and Tree Improvement Program grew both Eastern and Carolina hemlock for the first time at the Linville River Nursery in 2018 as part of a test program.

Having never grown hemlock seedlings, nursery managers wanted the opportunity to see if the imperiled trees would grow well at the mountain nursery and what, if any, challenges would arise, according to James West, nursery and tree improvement program head.

“While the ones grown at the nursery are not currently resistant to the hemlock woolly adelgid, but it is important that we know we could successfully grow healthy seedlings,” West said.

In North Carolina, various government agencies and interested groups are working to combat the devastating effects of the hemlock woolly adelgid on the tree species.

“Western North Carolina is blessed with the Eastern and Carolina hemlocks and both serve important roles in nature. We don’t want these native trees to disappear from our state,” said Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. “We’re trying to be proactive about preserving this important species, and this is the first step in the research process to develop a seedling resistant to the adelgid.”

The adelgid is a small aphid-like bug native to Asia and now found in North America. Strategies that have been used to fight the adelgid include chemically treating more than 33,000 trees and establishing populations of predatory insects that feed on the pest. These methods are proving to be effective for localized areas and specific trees.

“This small pest literally sucks the life out of the trees by piercing the base of the needles and then sucks the sap out of it. If left unchecked, hemlock trees can be devastated by the damage and eventually die,” West said.

Even though breeding trees resistant to the hemlock woolly adelgid and successfully introducing them into the landscape is still a ways off from happening, the N.C. Forest Service is taking the necessary steps to begin this process. This also includes partnering with multiple research groups and organizations, such as the Hemlock Restoration Initiative, to obtain possible adelgid-tolerant hemlock trees to be used for future development.

Researchers and state land managers were offered the first opportunity for the seedlings grown at the Linville River Nursery.

Beginning on March 4, a limited number of remaining seedlings will be sold to the public on a first- come, first-served basis. Orders will only be taken by telephone by calling 1-888-NCTREES, starting at 8 a.m. The seedlings inventory is expected to sell out quickly and more will not be available until next fall.

Eastern hemlocks typically grow along streams and moist areas where they provide shade for trout waters, habitat for birds, cover for other  wildlife and streambank stabilization. Carolina hemlocks can be found on drier ridge tops and rocky outcroppings. The rareness and limited range of the Carolina hemlock makes it a globally recognized species for diversity.