When we were in the woods getting our Christmas tree on Saturday, Z and I collected a few branches for making a wreath. I like to mix up my wreaths with a variety of evergreens, so we gathered a bit of four different species.
Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) is the traditional Christmas tree species around here. I've always tried to talk C into letting us get a different type of tree, but he insists on balsam, which, I admit, has certain advantages. One is the smell--that classic evergreen fragrance that gives the tree its name ("balsam" comes from the Hebrew for "perfume"). The other is the gentleness of the needles. The way to tell fir trees from spruce (they both have shortish needles that grow individually from the twigs) is that fir needles are "fine, flat, and friendly."
Spruce needles, by contrast are "sharp ands spiny." If you pluck a needle from a twig and can roll it between your fingers, it's a spruce--the needles are triangular in cross-section, unlike flat fir. Spruce needles also grow all around the twig, while fir are arranged pretty much in a single plane. Hanging ornaments on spruce branches would be rather painful. This is a white spruce (Picea glauca).
Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) needles are flat and grow in roughly one plane, like fir needles, but they are both shorter and more varied in length than fir needles. Hemlock trees also lack the nice conical shape of fir trees, but are rather shaggy, haphazard beasts. It would actually be kind of fun to have one for a Christmas tree, but you'd have to let go of all Christmas tree expectations.
Eastern white pine (Pinus strobes) looks a bit like Charlie Brown's tree, with long, feathery needles. The way you can tell you have a pine tree is that the needles grow in bundles, rather than individually from the twig, like other species of conifer (with the exception of tamarack, or larch, Larix laricina, whose needles also grow in bundles, but they have a distinctly fire-work-shaped growth pattern, and they wouldn't have needles this time of year, because they shed theirs in the fall). White pine needles grow in bundles of five, which you can remember either because there are five letters in "white" or because there are five points on a W.
Pines wouldn't be ideal Christmas trees because they are very sappy--you ornaments and presents would get covered in pitch. It turns out that, as much as I hate to admit it, balsam fir is the best Christmas tree around here. The others we can enjoy our in the woods--and in the wreath Z and I will make this weekend.