Another clue is to look for their cones. Hemlocks have pretty little cones that hang downward, all over the older branches, and you’ll usually find many on the ground below. These cones are about the size of a penny and are beautiful for craft projects.
Fir cones sit upright in the uppermost branches and are firmly attached. The cone crumbles apart when mature, scattering its seeds to the ground, rather than dropping intact cones as do hemlocks, spruce and pines.
Balsam firs are usually more lush and darker green than hemlocks. If you want to be sure, crush the tip of a branch in your fingers and see if you can smell that delightful balsam scent.
While a full balsam wreath is classic, I often like to add a variety of greens into my wreaths and swags for extra interest. White cedar branches are a yellower shade of green, and their shape is completely different. White pine has long, soft needles in bundles of five, and red cedar has more spikey, dark blue-green branches.
When gathering branches from our woods, I look for the red cedar branches that have their blue-black berries still attached for even more interest.
I used to be intimidated by making natural decorations but as long as you use fresh, attractive branches and boughs, you can’t go wrong.
Amy Ivy is executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Clinton County. Office phone numbers: Clinton County, 561-7450; Essex County, 962-4810; Franklin County, 483-7403. Website: www.cce.cornell.edu/ecgardening. Email questions to askMG@cornell.edu.