North Country Congressman Bill Owens and Vermont Congressman...
According to Amy Ivy, hemlock, of all the evergreen species, is the least desirable to use indoors because the needles quickly fall off. To tell the difference between hemlock and the longer-lasting balsam, you have to look at the base of the needles. Where balsam needles attach to the branch, it looks like a little suction cup; hemlock needles narrow to a stem-like base.
Another way to tell is hemlocks leave half-inch cones scattered on the ground around the tree, whereas balsam cones break apart when they fall off. All kinds of pinecones make beautiful decorations as well as good fire starters.
Ivy and Foley both prefer to make wreaths from mixed greenery. Foley likes to use mostly balsam, but mixes in some cedar and white pine. Ivy tries to incorporate red cedar branches with berries on them.
You may want to go far afield collecting materials for holiday decoration, but you should always ask the landowner’s consent when collecting off your own property. Another alternative way to get decorative greenery is to buy an extra-tall balsam Christmas tree, cut the bottom part off, and use those branches to make wreaths.
Assessing Christmas trees, Ivy said blue spruce make a beautiful display, but are very prickly, making them tough to work with. A Fraser fir tree is another nice choice for the holidays--they look very similar to a balsam, but don’t have the balsam’s pungent scent.
The biggest difference between spruce and balsam (which are often confused, said Ivy) is spruce needles are harder and prickly, and balsam needles are soft. Another way to tell is to pull off some needles. Spruce needles leave a very distinct stub, making the stripped branch look bumpy, whereas fir trees leave smooth branches after needles have been removed.