A Second Chance for Hemlocks

by | May 20, 2020

N.C. Forest Service Nursery & Tree Improvement Program makes hemlock seedlings available to the public.

The hemlock woolly adelgid has caused massive hemlock mortality in the eastern U.S. Image: J. Van Driesche, Bugwood.org.

In 1995, the hemlock woolly adelgid was found in North Carolina for the first time. Although tiny, this invasive insect can kill a massive hemlock in four to ten years. The devastation caused by the hemlock woolly adelgid is hard to miss. The Southern Appalachians are full of “gray ghosts”, a nickname given to the towering gray trees killed by the insect.

Although the image is grim, all hope is not lost. Many are optimistic that the future includes the return of hemlocks to our forests. Biological control, resistant hemlocks, and protective pesticides may all play a role in defense against the adelgid, but obtaining hemlock seedlings will be an obstacle in and of itself.

That’s why the N.C. Forest Service Nursery & Tree Improvement Program is taking on the challenge of producing hemlocks by collecting seed from wild-growing trees in western N.C., cultivating seedlings in the nursery, and selling them for restoration in our forests and landscapes. To date, the Nursery has seeded nearly 100,000 eastern and Carolina hemlocks at the Linville River Nursery in Avery County.

The N.C. Forest Service is growing hemlock in hopes that North Carolinians purchase and plant these hemlock seedlings and help to maintain them on our landscape.

Want a hemlock seedling for your property? Hemlock seedlings can be ordered beginning July 1 either online (at the N.C. Forest Service Seedling Store), by mailing in the order form found in the N.C. Forest Service Seedling Catalog, or by calling the N.C. Forest Service Seedling Coordinator at 919-731-7988. It’s important to note that these hemlocks are not resistant to the hemlock woolly adelgid and will require regular monitoring and protection. Seedlings are containerized and will be available for pickup this fall. It is recommended that trees be planted immediately (i.e., this fall) although the N.C. Forest Service is experimenting with different methods of long-term storage, including freezing. In general, early planting of containerized seedlings allows the seedling to become established before going dormant for the winter, leading to a more vigorous seedling. 

In addition to these efforts, a Carolina hemlock orchard was established at Gill State Forest in Avery County to retain trees of this species grown from local seed sources. “This is a conservation seed orchard with eventual seed going into research, reforestation, and conservation purposes,” says Andy Whittier, Research Forester with Camcore (part of N.C. State University). To plant these more than 500 Carolina hemlocks required a team effort. Led by Camcore,  initial site preparation was accomplished by the N.C. Forest Service Nursery and Tree Improvement staff out of Linville River Nursery. Planting and additional site work was accomplished utilizing the N.C. Forest Service B.R.I.D.G.E. program and volunteers with the Hemlock Restoration Initiative. 

In a time when current events seem foreboding, being a part of future solutions can bring hope. Residents in western North Carolina should consider being a part of hemlock restoration by planting hemlock seedlings for future generations.