The Hemlock Spruce is the most singularly beautiful of all the California coniferae. So slender is its axis at the top, that it bends over and droops like the stalk of a nodding lily. The branches droop also, and divide into innumerable slender, waving sprays, which are arranged in a varied, eloquent harmony that is wholly indescribable. Its cones are purple, and hang free, in the form of little tassels two inches long from all the sprays from top to bottom. Though exquisitely delicate and feminine in expression, it grows best where the snow lies deepest, far up in the region of storms, at an elevation of from 9000 to 9500 feet, on frosty northern slopes; but it is capable of growing considerably higher, say 10,500 feet. The tallest specimens, growing in sheltered hollows somewhat beneath the heaviest wind-currents, are from eighty to a hundred feet high, and from two to four feet in diameter. The very largest specimen I ever found was nineteen feet seven inches in circumference four feet from the ground, growing on the edge of Lake Hollow, at an elevation of 9250 feet above the level of the sea. At the age of twenty or thirty years it becomes fruitful, and hangs out its beautiful purple cones at the ends of the slender sprays, where they swing free in the breeze, and contrast delightfully with the cool green foliage. They are translucent when young, and their beauty is delicious. After they are fully ripe, they spread their shell-like scales and allow the brown-winged seeds to fly in the mellow air, while the empty cones remain to beautify the tree until the coming of a fresh crop.
[Illustration: STORM-BEATEN HEMLOCK SPRUCE, FORTY FEET HIGH.]
The staminate cones of all the coniferae are beautiful, growing in bright clusters, yellow, and rose, and crimson. Those of the Hemlock Spruce are the most beautiful of all, forming little conelets of blue flowers, each on a slender stem.
Under all conditions, sheltered or storm-beaten, well-fed or ill-fed, this tree is singularly graceful in habit. Even at its highest limit upon exposed ridge-tops, though compelled to crouch in dense thickets, huddled close together, as if for mutual protection, it still manages to throw out its sprays in irrepressible loveliness; while on well-ground moraine soil it develops a perfectly tropical luxuriance of foliage and fruit, and is the very loveliest tree in the forest; poised in thin white sunshine, clad with branches from head to foot, yet not in the faintest degree heavy or bunchy, it towers in unassuming majesty, drooping as if unaffected with the aspiring tendencies of its race, loving the ground while transparently conscious of heaven and joyously receptive of its blessings, reaching out its branches like sensitive tentacles, feeling the light and reveling in it. No other of our alpine conifers so finely veils its strength. Its delicate branches yield to the mountains’ gentlest breath; yet is it strong to meet the wildest onsets of the gale,—strong not in resistance, but compliance, bowing, snow-laden, to the ground, gracefully accepting burial month after month in the darkness beneath the heavy mantle of winter.