URBANA, Ill. – Miniature living evergreen trees, often decked out with bells and bows, are a common decoration or gift during the holidays. With proper care these Norfolk Island pine trees can last for years as beautiful houseplants.
“Despite their name, these evergreens are not actually pine trees,” says University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Ken Johnson.
Instead, they belong to the ancient plant family Araucariaceae, which were widespread during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods but are now confined to the southern hemisphere. In their native habitat on Norfolk Island, which is in the South Pacific, these evergreens can reach heights of up to 200 feet and have trunks up to 10 feet in diameter.
European explorer James Cook arrived at Norfolk Island in 1774. With the trees’ long, straight trunks, Cook believed the island’s evergreens could be used to make ship masts.
“Ever since, Norfolk Island pines have been transported around the world,” Johnson says. “They can be found growing in humid coastal areas in many countries, including the U.S.”
In addition to being used as an ornamental plant, their wood is used for construction, woodturning, and crafts.
As houseplants, Norfolk Island pines grow slowly, about 3 to 6 inches a year and they typically will reach heights of 6 to 8 feet, although they can grow taller.
Johnson says the key to keeping houseplants healthy is to mimic their native environment as closely as possible.
“Our homes tend to be dry, especially in winter, so it is important to take steps to increase the humidity around your plant,” he says. “This can be done by misting plants, using a humidifier, or making a humid microclimate.”
Fill a saucer with rocks and add water until the rocks are slightly above the water line; then place the plant on top of the rocks. While Norfolk Island pines like moist conditions, if the plant is overwatered or has wet feet it can lose branches. Allow the soil to dry between waterings and make sure the pot has drainage holes. A diluted liquid houseplant fertilizer can be used every two weeks while they are actively growing, typically from March to September.
Norfolk Island pines enjoy bright locations, but they can tolerate lower light conditions once they have been acclimated. If plants are not allowed to acclimate, entire branches may yellow and die. In low light conditions, branches become long and droopy, and growth will slow. Turn the plant occasionally so it receives adequate light and grows evenly and straight.
With proper care, a holiday Norfolk Pine tree will last for years to come.
SOURCE: Ken Johnson, Horticulture Educator, Illinois Extension
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