By Cindy Haynes
Iowa State University Extension
When people think of living Christmas trees they often think about small, container-grown evergreens that are brought indoors around Christmas. Their time indoors must be short, and a well-planned exit strategy (hole already dug in the landscape) should be in place. Obtaining and attempting to ensure winter survival of such a tree can be a lot of work for a limited amount of enjoyment indoors.
The Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) is another option for having a live Christmas tree during the holiday season. This tree is quite different from a typical pine in the Iowa landscape. It is a tropical plant, and must remain indoors during the winter months. As the name suggests, it is native to the Island of Norfolk, a tiny island near New Zealand. In its native habitat it will easily reach more than100 feet tall -- thankfully, it rarely reaches more than 20 feet tall inside most homes.
Pros and Cons of the Norfolk Island Pine
This time of year you see small Norfolk Island Pines for sale in some nurseries, garden centers, discount stores and even grocery stores. They often have tiny velvet bows or bells attached to the branches in place of ornaments. They make great tabletop trees for offices, apartments or anywhere space does not allow a larger tree. Over time, as they grow and get larger they can approach heights and widths normally found with regular Christmas trees.
While they can get large enough to become trees, their branches cannot usually sustain the weight of most holiday ornaments. Smaller ornaments and mini-lights are recommended when decorating Norfolk Island pines. It also is recommended that the decorations be removed promptly after the holiday season to prevent damage to the needles or branches.
The biggest advantage of a Norfolk Island pine is that it can grow indoors for many years. They prefer bright, mostly indirect light from eastern or western windows. They are temperamental with respect to soil moisture -- never wanting to be too wet or too dry. Consistent and thorough watering when the top of the soil dries out will help ensure longevity. Increased humidity in the winter also is necessary to keep plants thriving indoors.
Provided that the tree is properly placed and watered, Norfolk Island pines are fairly easy to maintain, preferring more neglect than nurture. They require little fertilization -- watering with a soluble fertilizer once a month in spring and summer should be sufficient. They also prefer to be a bit pot-bound, meaning they do not require repotting every year. Repotting into a slightly larger container with a well-drained commercial potting mix every four years should be adequate.
Norfolk Island pines also will let you know if something is wrong in their environment. If environmental conditions do not meet their liking, the lower limbs may turn yellow or brown and fall off prematurely.
These attractive indoor trees lend themselves nicely to decorating each holiday season. Try one out in your home this holiday and watch how quickly it will become an important part of your future holiday family traditions.