As a beginner at bonsai I became interested in hiking in the mountains to feed my bonsai interests. Hiking around up in the high mountains of California gives you an entirely different experience with tree forms than the trees that grow in a typical residential neighborhood or in the coastal ranges.
Among other species, the first time I ever saw a mountain hemlock was on a hiking expedition in Lassen National Park. I was immediately enchanted by the beauty of the foliage and the grace of the down swept branches; the branching pattern is naturally short and elegant, making a tall slender tree that seemed designed to shed large amounts of snow and sway gracefully in the mountain winds. This seemed like the perfect tree for bonsai in my mind.
Muir wrote about hemlock, then called Hemlock Spruce:
“I wish I had space to write more of the surpassing beauty of this favorite spruce. … The deer love to lie down beneath its spreading branches; bright streams from the snow that is always near ripple through its groves, and bryanthus spreads precious carpets in its shade. But the best words only hint its charms. Come to the mountains and see.”
There really is nothing like experiencing a mountain hemlock in person, either in the wild or as a bonsai. The foliage is particularly beautiful in spring as the new tips elongate in a bright green with the contrasting mature foliage as the backdrop.
Mountain Hemlock is in its infancy as a bonsai species. The trees are native to only the tops of mountains typically. In California this means that the largest populations are between Yosemite and Lake Tahoe with scattered smaller populations on many higher mountains to the north and south. Northward into Oregon and Washington favorable conditions prevail on lower mountains so the ranges are wider, but still confided to high elevations.