“A Pine That’s Not a Pine, and a Norfolk That Isn’t In Virginia”

By K. Bagby, VCE Southside Master Gardener; Virginia Master Naturalist Well, ‘tis the season! Judging from the Christmas displays we started seeing well before Halloween, it’s been the season for awhile now, and I’m just slow on the uptake. I’d like to think I’m not (very) slow, just old-fashioned. I prefer to enjoy Thanksgiving before I break out the candy canes. One thing I do look forward to well before Christmas is the assortment of plants that turn up in the floral sections of the stores and at florists. I’ve already seen some really lovely holiday cacti. Some of these are really tempting, especially those lovely Schlumbergera, the holiday cacti, with the cream-colored blooms. There are paperwhite bulbs for forcing, and I’ve seen a few amaryllis kits as well. What I’m looking for this year, however, are the Norfolk pines. I doubt that I’ll get any, because I just don’t have the quality of light they need, but a few more grow lights and I might just get there!
The Norfolk Island Pine can make a nice table top Christmas tree with LED lights and light decorations. The Norfolk pine, or Norfolk Island Pine, is from the Araucaria genus. There are about 19 species in the genus, indigenous to the southern hemisphere. Norfolk Island is northwest of New Zealand and the Norfolk Island Pine is native there. Araucaria heterophylla is the genus and species name of this plant. It’s a species of conifer but isn’t actually a pine. In the wild, it grows in a pyramid shape with wide-spaced branches arranged in horizontal tiers around a single straight trunk. It can reach a height of 200 feet. Cultivated trees grown in the proper climate typically get to 60-100 feet. As an indoor plant, the Norfolk pine is a slow grower with sword-like leaves that turn inward in an overlapping herringbone pattern. It likes cooler indoor temperatures of 55-65F and indirect medium to bright light. It can reach heights of 9 feet or more, though careful pruning can limit this. Pot it in fertile, slightly acidic soil that is well-drained (porous, sandy, and peaty). Repot it every 3-4 years or when roots become visible at the soil surface. Norfolk pines have weak root systems and prefer to be a little pot-bound. Full sun is best for growth, but if your plant starts to yellow it might need a little light afternoon shade. Rotate it weekly or so to keep growth symmetrical. This is especially helpful in keeping the trunk straight. Be careful not to over- or underwater these plants. Water them thoroughly and consistently when the top of the soil dries, once every week or two, and don’t let their feet rest in standing water. If your home’s especially dry, they may benefit from misting or being grouped with other plants to help keep a little zone of higher humidity around them. If you fertilize them, once a month in the spring and summer should be sufficient. Spring through fall, these little trees can go outside as long as temperatures don’t fall consistently below 50F. This is another houseplant that’s slightly toxic to pets, so keep it out of reach or try a different plant. I haven’t forgotten the Christmas part! Their branches aren’t strong enough to hold heavy ornaments, but they do just fine with lighter ones or bows. Use LED lights to avoid burning the branches. Enjoy your little tabletop tree. Maybe put a shiny beaded spiderweb and spider in it for luck. Or, I suppose, Spiderman if you have superhero fans in the house. Many thanks to our Virginia Cooperative Extension Southside Master Gardeners and Virginia Master Naturalist Southern Piedmont Chapter, and to all the people who give their time to and through these groups to serve their communities. The Virginia Cooperative Extension Halifax Extension Office is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday. If you have gardening questions, you can continue to reach an extension master gardener or extension staff member by sending an email to wmccaleb@vt.edu or calling the Halifax Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at 434-830-3383. Be sure to give us your first and last name, telephone number and the nature of the call. The help desk phone is routinely checked Monday-Friday. Someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number.