The Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) is a common houseplant that is often sold around Christmas time due to its Christmas-tree-like appearance. However, in its native range, it is quite different than the 1-5 ft houseplant we know it as, reaching heights of 150-200 feet. Although affectionately referred to as a “pine”, it is technically not a true pine (of the family Pinaceae) but rather a member of a separate coniferous family, Araucariaceae.
The tree is endemic to Norfolk Island, a small island in the Pacific between New Zealand and New Caledonia, where it thrives in subtropical costal environments. Although its wood fiber is not known particularly for its strength, it is sufficiently flexible to withstand strong costal winds (and sometimes hurricanes) and produce tall, amazingly straight trees.
The first known documentation of European observance was recorded by Captain James Cook in 1774, who noted value in the tall, straight trees for use in sailboat masts and yards. However, the Norfolk Island pine was not strong enough for these uses once others attempted mast production in the 1790’s.
Since the bole of this tree is so incredibly straight, it has been used extensively for woodturning, which doesn’t require the extreme structural strength, but values beauty and aesthetics. Hawaiian artisans have created some really remarkable artwork from this species, making everything from beautifully turned bowls to ornate furniture pieces.
Worldwide, Norfolk Island pines are more revered for their beauty than their utility. Their symmetrical, pyramidal growth habit combined with attractive, awl-like needles on younger growth has spurred extensive cultivation in suitable climates. It is now widely distributed landscape plant across humid, subtropical climates around the globe. Here in the US, it is considered hardy in Zone 10 and 11, which limits its use as a landscape plant to southern Florida, and specific locations in southern California.
Although beautiful in its youth, its symmetric growth habit tends to fade as it ages. Since it grows quickly and quite straight, it is often prone to disfiguring lightening strikes and subsequent branch failure. Therefore, it has become less recommended (or sometimes banned) in certain localities.
In the US, this species is best used as a houseplant, where it provides a beautiful array of green needles in a dense compact habit. It is one of my favorite house plants due to its adaptability and beauty. Younger needles are more dense and slightly curved, whereas the older needles become somewhat contorted or twisted, thus the scientific name “heterophylla” meaning “different leaves”. It is tolerant of a wide range of indoor conditions, making it a tough houseplant.
Many folks buy Norfolk Island pines around the holidays and throw them out afterwards. To me, this is such a travesty. This year, plan to keep your Norfolk Island pine happy and healthy by giving it proper care.
To keep their dense foliage and branching, these plants need ample light. They can tolerate lower light, but must be adjusted slowly to the change. Remember, your plant came from a green house with full sun. If the ideal spot in your home will have less light, adjust your plant slowly by gradually weaning off light from a sunnier spot. When watering, allow soil to completely dry out between watering. They cannot tolerate overly wet roots. Since they are tropical plants, they have little tolerate for temperatures below 45 degrees. Their ideal temperature range is 65-75 degrees, which coincides nicely with most indoor environments.
With proper care, you can enjoy your Norfolk Island pine for many Christmases to come. In fact, they make a wonderful living Christmas tree you can reuse for years.