Grow a living Christmas tree with Norfolk Island Pine
In today's "Growing Together" column, Don Kinzler explains how this option can be perfect for the holidays for small spaces, doesn't drop needles and can be a beautiful houseplant for the rest of the year.
What if I told you there’s a Christmas tree that can be left up all year without looking out of place? For those who prefer natural trees, it’s real, but doesn’t drop needles all over the living room rug. It also fits small apartments or larger homes alike, and you’ll never spend time setting up and taking down.
What is this magical Christmas tree? It’s the Norfolk Island Pine, the potted evergreen seen in retailers at the onset of the Christmas decorating season, often festive with ribbons and small ornaments. When the holidays are over, Norfolk Island Pine remains a beautiful indoor houseplant.
Although they slightly resemble some evergreens grown outdoors in yards and landscapes in our region, Norfolk Island Pines aren’t winter hardy. In fact, they’re native to tropical islands, and are severely injured if temperatures fall below 50 degrees F.
When buying a Norfolk Island Pine in fall and winter, it’s imperative to cover or wrap the plant on chilly days. Even a quick dash from the store to your vehicle can cause permanent damage or death to uncovered tropical plants, although it’s unfortunately common to see them carried outside totally unprotected.
Despite their name, these evergreens are not actually pine trees, and are in a completely different family. Norfolk Pines belong to an ancient plant family named Araucariaceae which interestingly was found worldwide during the Jurassic dinosaur period. Now they’re confined to the Southern Hemisphere and are native to Norfolk Island and nearby islands located in the South Pacific near Australia and New Zealand.
In their native habitat, these large evergreens can grow to 200 feet with trunks up to 10 feet in diameter. The plants, along with Norfolk Island, were discovered by Europeans in 1774. Since then, the trees have been transported around the world and can be found growing in mild climates like southern California and southern Florida.
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Besides being an outdoor evergreen in warm climates, Norfolk Island Pine was found to be adaptable as an indoor plant. As with most houseplants, they grow best if we imitate their native environment as closely as possible. While their tropical island habitat is humid, our homes tend to be dry, especially in winter, so it’s important to increase the humidity around Norfolk Pines.
The following are tips for successfully growing Norfolk Island Pine houseplants.
- When purchasing on chilly days below 50 degrees, remember to cover or wrap before going outside. National chains don’t always realize the importance, or offer unless asked. Enclose in a large plastic bag, add a few puffs of warm air to inflate and tie the top.
- Norfolk Pines thrive with plentiful humidity, especially important in winter. One way to add humidity is to rest the pot on rocks in a water-filled saucer, being sure the pot’s bottom is above water level. Dry, furnace-heated air is one cause of branches turning brown.
- These plants like moist conditions, but not wet feet. Allow the soil to dry out somewhat between waterings and make sure your pot has drainage holes. If you feel moisture when inserting a finger into the soil up to the first joint, delay watering a day or two. Like other houseplants, water until water begins to flow out of the pot’s drainage holes. After about 15 minutes, discard the excess water.
- Fertilize with a water-soluble type every two weeks during the active growing season, which is March through September. There’s no need to fertilize during winter’s short days and weak sunshine when plants are barely growing.
- Norfolk Island pines enjoy bright locations. They can tolerate lower light conditions once they’ve been gradually acclimated. New growth is more prolific with increased light, though, including a little winter sunshine.
- They enjoy a summer vacation outdoors from late May through August in a wind-protected area of bright shade. Rinse well with a gentle stream of water before returning indoors.
- As houseplants, Norfolk Island Pines grow 3 to 6 inches per year. In time, they can reach 6 to 8 feet indoors.
- Spider mites are attracted to Norfolk Pines, causing gray-green, dull branch coloration, eventually progressing to brown. Treat with insecticidal soap, neem oil or systemic insecticides at the earliest symptoms.
- Although relatively carefree, browning of needles and branches can be caused by low humidity, soil kept continually too wet or too dry, or mite infestation.
Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.