Trowel & Error

A tree with a tropical twist

The Norfolk Island pine brings year-round cheer

By Nancy Crowe
The holidays are greener these days. Many entries in the Embassy Festival of Trees are eco-friendly — live evergreens festooned with low-energy LED lights, “green art” trees and decorations made of found objects. But if you’re not a professional designer or corporate sponsor — or even if you just want to simplify — a living Christmas tree may be a breath of fresh air.

Now, I do not mean the kind of living Christmas tree consisting of robed church choir members, or even the kind that has to be hauled home in a pickup. I mean an actual living tree with its trunk uncut and the roots still in the soil, usually in a container. The Norfolk Island pine is a perfect example. You can find these at retail stores or garden centers in sizes ranging from a few inches to a few feet tall. Some come dressed for the season, or you may be able to find lights and ornaments made to fit these petite customers.

These are not the kind of pine trees Santa Claus would have growing in his back yard at the North Pole. The Norfolk Island pine comes from a small Pacific island about 900 miles east of Australia, and the seeds made their way to Hawaii. Now, according to a December 2006 story in the Honolulu Advertiser, the Norfolk pine is pretty much the official Christmas tree of the tropics. There’s even a Christmas tree farm full of Norfolk Island pines on Oahu.

After two tabletop holiday cypress trees died despite my best efforts — and broke my heart — I ordered a 2-foot Norfolk pine that has cheerfully endured for years. I put a few tiny lights and ornaments on it at Christmas, and it adds a festive touch wherever it happens to be. It’s a beautiful little Christmas tree, and during the rest of the year, it’s a beautiful little tree.

Even with the larger specimens, this tree is not the one on which you want to string regular-sized lights or hang ornaments much heavier than credit cards. Less is definitely more here. I would also highly recommend getting your little tree from a trusted florist or greenhouse. How it’s treated before you buy it will affect how well it fares thereafter.

Once the holidays are over and the decorations are off, move the tree to a spot where it will get good light — an east or west window is recommended by Iowa State University, but mine is doing fine next to a south window. The Norfolk pine likes consistent soil moisture, so I water less twice a week rather than more once a week. It also likes humidity; mist it every day or two with a spray bottle. Or keep it on a saucer or tray with stones and water (the container should be just above the water, not sitting in it). If the lower limbs turn brown and fall off prematurely, chances are something is not right — dry air is a common culprit.

Iowa State recommends repotting into a slightly larger container about every four years, but some sources I consulted indicated they don’t repot well at any time. Not wanting to risk losing another little tree, I left mine in its original plastic pot for nearly six years. When it began to look top-heavy and forlorn, I finally moved it into a ceramic pot an inch or two larger. Within hours, it perked up.

Have the greenest of holidays, with plenty of growth in the New Year.

Nancy Crowe

Master Gardener Nancy Crowe's Garden Spot column also appears in interactive format online.

Posted Fri, 12/14/2012 - 3:21 pm