By Nadie VanZandt
Extension Master Gardener Intern
University of Vermont
This holiday season Christmas trees laden with cherished ornaments and twinkly lights evoking a sense of wonder, peace and warmth will adorn our homes. When the festivities conclude, this cozy haven disappears as we relinquish our trees to the trash. For many, this sharp change in scenery, the deep cold and the darkness combine to invite the winter woes.
How can we keep the holiday cheer going to avoid the bleakness of winter?
An answer may lie with the Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla). Often referred to as the "living Christmas tree," it will continue to grace a home long past the holidays.
These ancient trees of warm climates are members of the diverse Araucariaceae family of conifers. They were common during the Jurassic and Cretaceous eras although disappeared in the Northern Hemisphere at the end of the latter era, a period that also saw the extinction of dinosaurs. However, Norfolk Island pines continued to survive and thrive in the Southern Hemisphere.
In 1774, during a sea voyage, famed Captain James Cook discovered this majestic species on Norfolk Island in the South Pacific. This small island, located between New Zealand and Australia, was uninhabited at the time and later served as a British penal settlement.
Today Norfolk Island pines are grown successfully in warm coastal areas north of the equator. This includes the Mediterranean region and the southern coast of the United States, notably Florida.
In its natural habitat the Norfolk Island pine can reach 200 ft. in height. Its trunk grows tall and straight undeterred by high winds. It owes its name as "living Christmas tree" to its triangular silhouette and its symmetrical horizontal branches.
Awl-shaped needles curled inward form its foliage. These conifers grow very slowly, and when mature, they produce large globe-like seed cones that take 18 months to mature.
A traditional live Christmas tree can only stay inside for a few days to keep it dormant. But a young Norfolk Island pine will thrive indoors in regular potting soil with plenty of moisture and sunlight.
Sold as holiday plants, you can find them this time of year in nurseries and big box stores. When choosing a Norfolk Island pine, be sure to select one free of green or glitter spray paint, often added for decoration, because this coating interferes with its ability to photosynthesize.
Place your potted tree next to a brightly sunlit window. Rotate it weekly to ensure it grows upright and straight. Water deeply when the soil is dry to the touch.
Take care to provide high humidity around it. This will mimic its natural environment and will ensure optimal growth.
All you need is a saucer large enough to hold the potted tree. Fill the saucer with a one-inch layer of pebbles or gravel, and then add water to just below the top of the pebbles. Place the pot on the gravel, making sure that it does not sit in water. Add more water to the saucer as needed to provide continuous moisture.
This plant is not a heavy feeder, so it will not need fertilizing during the winter months. But it benefits from a diluted fertilizer once or twice a month from spring through fall. With proper care, your tree can last a decade in your home and may grow to be 5-6 ft. in height.
Decorate your tree with lightweight ornaments to avoid bending its branches. Add garlands of mini-lights to show off its understated elegance. And when the holidays are over, keep the string of lights on and let your Norfolk Island pine continue to brighten your days throughout the winter.