It’s easy to get carried away at Christmas, and I’m not just talking about shopping and over-indulging on mince pies and eggnog.
This indulgence also extends to our decorations. All too often miniature conifers, flocked in white ‘snow’ or bedazzled in glitter, are sold only to shrivel up in the home.
The solution? Araucaria heterophylla (syn. excelsa), or the Norfolk Island pine, as it is commonly known. A plant which will not only look very stylish over the holiday season but also delivers structure and shape in the home for years to come.
A. heterophylla is known as the Norfolk Island/Norfolk pine, Polynesian pine, house pine, living Christmas tree, triangle tree and star pine. Despite these names, it isn’t actually a pine at all!
Cheeky little monkey (puzzle)
Don’t worry if you aren’t familiar with the Norfolk pine, it’s not the most common of houseplants, but it does have a rather famous relative - the monkey puzzle (A. araucana).
Both are conifer trees, and the Norfolk pine can eventually reach 50-65m when grown outdoors.
Although native to Oceania it is now widely cultivated as an ornamental tree in the Mediterranean and other subtropical climates. But don’t let its size terrify you, Araucaria species are slow-growing, particularly in the home, so you won’t have to take out the skylight for a few years.
Although the tree has suffered from human involvement a little in its native habitat, it has become popular globally for its structural shape and salt-tolerance
Tender and mild
Unlike its hardy monkey puzzle cousin, the Norfolk pine cannot stay outdoors year-round in most of the UK, as prolonged exposure to temperatures below 5°C isn’t advised.
Instead, keep in a cool room with a range of ideally 7-12°C (45-55°F), but no more than 21°C (70°F). Norfolk pines require proper humidity to thrive, so regularly misting is essential, particularly in warmer rooms, where you may also want to sit your plant on a gravel tray.
For a couple of weeks surrounding Christmas, you could move it to a warmer living room. However, you would need to place it back in a cooler room afterwards.
Keeping your Norfolk pine slightly potbound will restrict growth, but will increase the need for water
Pining for the summer months
Once the outside temperature consistently remains above 5-7°C and fear of frost has passed, then you can place your Norfolk pine outside for the summer.
Being outside will help with keeping humidity levels higher. Hot, stuffy rooms will encourage red spider mite and browning needles.
Choose a spot out of direct summer sun, ideally dappled shade, and ensure the plant never fully dries out.
Repot in spring if necessary and feed monthly throughout the summer with a balanced fertiliser.
Bring plants back in when temperatures begin to drop into singles figures, usually around mid-September to October.
Browning of needles is normal on lower stems, but under/over-watering and low humidity will cause the same effect all over the plant.
- Keep cool overwinter, away from centrally heated rooms and treat to a summer holiday outdoors from May-September.
- Never allow more than the top 10-20% of compost to dry out, but don’t overwater.
- Mist regularly to keep up humidity levels.
- Bright indirect light is best, and some winter sun is appreciated.
- Keep plants slightly potbound to limit growth and keep manageable for longer.
The Norfolk Island pine appears on the Australian territory's flag
Norfolk pine trivia
- A. heterophylla is one of the very few plants to appear on a national flag (above).
- Sometimes plants are sprayed green for Christmas, but this is detrimental long-term. Check before buying.
- Male and female flowers are usually produced on separate plants, with the female cones are stout and prickly.
- If you take a cutting of a side branch, it will also grow horizontally, not vertically like most cuttings!
- The branches are arranged in whorls of five and should form a perfect pentagon when seen from above.
The soft green leaves of A. heterophylla change shape on more mature trees, becoming more incurved, tougher and more extended.