Potted Norfolk Pines are in nearly every store at Christmas. Are they worthwhile to buy or not? How do you care for them?
So there I was, browsing through my favorite supermarket last night. It’s a great store, tons of fresh organic produce, local produce, and a bakery which actually makes fresh whole wheat and sourdough bread.
And of course, I’m having gardening withdrawal at this time of year. Snow is on the ground, its bitterly cold for December, and all I can do is fantasize about the new garden projects I’m going to undertake come spring.
And then I (surprise!) found myself looking at the houseplants which come in the white/green/red combo at this time of year. I discovered an absolutely beautiful live pine tree in a pot. At first I thought it was artificial, because I hadn’t seen this tree before. And the foliage was so perfect and green – tightly spaced, short, deep green, and very soft to the touch. The price was right too (what gardener can resist a bargain?). How, in all of my years, had I never noticed this tree/plant before?
The argument inside my head got underway:
Sure it’s nice, but how big will it get and where will I plant it in spring?
It would be a nice accent piece, but right now it’s only two feet, so it won’t exactly serve as a Christmas tree this year…
Probably not native.
I searched the plant tag, no info. On the container, I saw the words, “Norfolk Pine”. Thank God for iPhones at times like these.
A quick search revealed that Norfolk Pines are not native to Norfolk, Virginia, Norfolk Colorado, Norfolk, Massachusetts, Norfolk, Mississippi, or Norfolk County, England. They’re native to Norfolk Island, deep in the South Pacific, between New Caladonia and Australia. They grow 80-200 feet in their native habitat and the cones can be as large as 15 pounds (that makes their cones roughly the size of your head). The correct name is Norfolk Island Pine, known botanically as Araucaria heterophylla. And it’s not even a pine, it’s a coniferous evergreen. It can only be grown outdoors in zone 11, and in the warmer areas of zone 10, like around San Francisco Bay. But once again, it’s not native to anywhere in North America. Norfolk Island Pines are really sensitive to cold and heat, and don’t like temps below 60 or above 85. That seems closer to the tomatoes I’ve grown, not the trees.
One of the most familiar tree silhouettes in the world is that of the Norfolk Island Pine, a member of the Araucaria family that has been dated from the Jurassic period, 200 million years ago. Araucaria species have prehistoric connections to the pine family when all of the continents were one single land mass.- San Francisco Botanical Garden
Okay, that solves the question can I plant it in my yard after the holidays? , because that’s going to be way too big. And it won’t survive the winters here in zone 6b. Not to mention that it’s not even close to being a native plant, so wouldn’t be of any use in supporting local habitat. But here is where little Todd and adult Todd have an argument: “but I really want it, it’s so beautiful!” “no, it’s not native and grows far too large for our property”, “but I really want it!”, “can’t have it – where will we keep it?” “but I really want it!”, “well maybe…”, and adult Todd of course caves.
So unless you live in a part of the world where warm, humid air is a constant, you have just one option – growing a Norfolk Island Pine as a houseplant. They’re beautiful indoor plants and wonderful accents for your Christmas decorating, so if the spirit moves you, buy it. But be warned, a Norfolk Pine will eventually outgrow its container and your home. But probably not for many years. Unless you live in a warm castle.
Care for Norfolk Island Pine
- Norfolk Pines prefer a bright indirect light source, but not direct sunlight
- They prefer high humidity of 50% – run a humidifier in winter if you live in an area where your home must be heated. The humidified air is good for you too.
- Choose your container carefully – it should be large and wide. The tree will grow 3-6 inches every year, and doesn’t like to be repotted, due to its weak root structure. Plan on keeping it in its original pot as long as possible.
- Use a fast draining potting soil, as soggy roots will make a Norfolk Pine very unhappy – its lower limbs and needles will yellow and drop
- Norfolk Pines need little fertilization. Use a balanced organic granular fertilizer once every 3-4 months.
- In summer, it can be grown outdoors in a covered area. But if temps rise above 85 consistently, or dip below 50 at night, bring it indoors.
- Don’t prune a Norfolk Pine. Cutting the tips will force growth elsewhere and destroy its natural shape. The lower branches will self prune.