December 3, 2012

Boughs make natural decorations

AMY IVY, Cornell Cooperative Extension

---- — Now that December is here, it’s time to start gathering boughs and branches, berries and seed pods to decorate your home for winter and the holidays.

Be sure to get the landowner’s permission before you start clipping, or you can buy natural materials from garden centers and florists. Whenever we cut our own Christmas tree, I try to find one that’s taller than I need so I can use the lower branches for wreaths and swags and still have a nice-size tree to decorate.

If you want fragrance, nothing beats balsam fir, plus it’s native and widely available throughout the Adirondacks.

White pine has a nice fragrance, too, but much milder than balsam, and many people feel our native white spruce has an objectionable odor when brought indoors. It’s a beautiful tree with lovely boughs, just try to use it outdoors or on your porch.

Blue spruce is beautiful and long lasting, but it’s extremely prickly so you’ll need to handle this one with care.

Hemlocks are widespread throughout our region and often grow where balsam firs flourish. They look alike, so if you plan to gather your own boughs take a few minutes to learn how to tell them apart.

Hemlocks drop their needles quickly, which makes them a poor choice for decorations, while balsam firs hold on to their wonderfully fragrant needles for weeks after being cut. Every now and then, I see wreaths for sale made out of hemlock instead of balsam, which wouldn’t last nearly as long, so it’s good to know what you’re getting.

Both hemlock and balsam have soft needles. The best way to tell them apart is to look at how the needles are attached to the branch. Hemlock needles narrow to a little stem, or petiole, which attaches the needle to the branch. Balsam needles stay the same width all the way to the branch and hold on with a rounded foot that reminds me of a suction cup. When you pull off a couple of balsam needles, the bark feels smooth where they had been attached, but on hemlock you can often feel little bumps on the bark.

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: Email questions to