Updated: Feb 7
Don’t throw your Norfolk Island Pines (Araucaria heterophylla) out after the holidays! These little trees can be grown as houseplants for years to come! Also known as a ‘Living Christmas Tree’, these trees are commonly sold around the holidays because they look like miniature christmas trees. Although not a true pine, the Norfolk Island Pine is also a coniferous tree with needle-like leaves and a triangular growth pattern.
The Norfolk Island Pine is native to Norfolk Island in the Pacific Ocean just east of Australia. They grow in rocky soils on the coasts of the island where they have adapted to be tolerant to salt sprays and heavy winds. Given the right conditions, the Norfolk Island Pine can live to be over 150 years old.
Although Norfolk Island Pines are very slow growers, they can reach to over 200 feet tall in their native, coastal habitat. It is unlikely though that they will grow to such heights in North America and Europe where they have become popular houseplants. Growth is limited to even large growing plants when grown indoors and in pots. We also have much cooler climates than their native Norfolk Island which limits their growth potential.
Norfolk Island Pines can’t survive being grown outdoors in cold regions where temperatures dip to 30 degrees and below.
Norfolk Island Pines are most widely grown outdoors in Southern California and Florida where they are grown for retail during the holiday season. Unless you live in a climate that stays warm year round, it is best to keep your tree in a pot where it can be kept indoors or brought inside when the temperatures drop.
Norfolk Island Pines need a lot of sunlight to grow healthy and to keep their lush green foliage. If growing your Norfolk Island Pine indoors, place it within a few feet of a window where it will get at least six hours of very bright light a day. Your tree will also benefit from a few hours of direct sun rays through a window. Rotate the tree each time you water it to ensure it continues growing symmetrically. Branches that are shaded out from the rest of the plant often grow much slower, giving the tree a lopsided look. If you are growing your Norfolk Island Pine set back far from windows where it is receiving little to no sunlight, it will develop a stretched look with more and more space developing between the branches followed by limb drop over time.
A lack of sufficient sunlight can contribute to root rot because the less sunlight the tree gets, the slower it will grow and the less moisture it will take up through its roots.
If you have a lack of sufficient sunlight in your home, you may consider purchasing a grow light. Grow lights should be kept on for at least 12-hrs a day and within 12 inches of the tree. Hanging grow lights from Soltech or Amazon Tripod and clip grow lights can be found online.
The more sunlight your Norfolk Island Pine gets, the fuller and healthier it will grow. You can move your tree outdoors when the temperatures warm up over 60 degrees in the spring, but don’t immediately place the tree in direct sunlight as this can scorch its leaves. Place the tree in a location where it gets very bright light or morning sunlight and gradually introduce it to direct sunlight over a few weeks. This entails putting the tree in direct sunlight for only 30 minutes at a time over the first week and gradually increasing that time over the following two weeks. Protect your Norfolk Island Pine from direct afternoon sun rays as these rays are much stronger than morning rays and can burn the tree's leaves.
The Norfolk Island Pine prefers its soil to stay evenly moist to keep its foliage nice and green. Avoid letting the tree sit in wet or dry soil conditions as both can create an unhealthy root system which will quickly show signs of distress in the leaves and branches. Soil moisture can be regulated easier by using a high quality soil that is coarse and fast draining, just like the soil of its native habitat.
Your Norfolk Island Pine will let you know when it is not happy with its current soil moisture by first showing signs in the leaves. Yellow leaves are often a sign that the plant is receiving too much moisture. Hold off on watering again until the soil has significantly dried out and almost to the dry point. This is easier to gauge in smaller pots as you can test the soil moisture level by sticking your finger down a couple of inches.
A moisture meter probe can be used for larger pots, but do not always give accurate readings. The average watering time frame is 1-2 weeks, but this can fluctuate depending on the pot size and the tree’s growing environment. Avoid letting the soil go completely dry for more than a day to prevent the leaves from drying.
Prolonged periods of dryness can cause the branches to fall from the trunk as a stress response to conserve energy for the tree.
The downside of this is that a new branch will never grow back in place of the fallen one. If the tips of the branches dry, you can prune them back to the green, healthy part and new growth will form at this point.
Although the Norfolk Island Pine is tolerant of heavy winds in its native habitat, the trees available for purchase are not acclimated to these conditions and can easily get damaged from dry air coming from vents or drafty windows. Damage from dry air results in drying of the leaves. You can help prevent the leaves from drying out by placing a humidifier near the plant and running it for the first half of the day. The ideal humidity levels for the Norfolk Island Pine are between 40-60% humidity and can be measured using a temp/humidity gauge.
After the holidays have ended, it is best to remove the tree from the decorative wrapping, plastic pot and dense soil it was sold in. Re-pot your tree into a coarse soil designed for tropical houseplants or even succulents as these soils have added wood bark and pumice stones which provide air pockets for the roots to breathe. It is best to choose a pot made of a water absorbent material such as clay or ceramic as plastic pots tend to hold onto too much moisture.
When upgrading the pot size for your Norfolk Island Pine, choose a pot that is only 2-4” larger in size than the previous one.
Norfolk Island Pines do not have a large root system when young and so do not need a lot of space for roots. Choosing a pot that is significantly bigger than the plant’s root system can cause too much moisture to build up in the soil where the roots have not had a chance to grow into. It is only necessary to increase the pot size if the tree’s roots are growing over the top of the soil line or through the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot.
Norfolk Island Pines need to be regularly fed nutrients to grow healthily. Feed your tree spring through fall and stop feeding during the winter when the plant is resting and not growing or taking up nutrients as readily. The tree’s peak growing seasons are spring and summer. There are two common ways of feeding your tree and those are either with a liquid fertilizer or dry, slow release fertilizer. Liquid fertilizers need to be applied more often as the plant uses liquid nutrients more readily and so needs a regular supply. Dry, slow release fertilizers can be applied less often because the plant only takes up the nutrients a little bit at a time with each watering. Here are a couple of recommended liquid and slow release fertilizers along with their applications rates:
FoxFarm Grow Big Liquid - Mix 2-tsp / gallon of water for each watering
FoxFarm All Purpose Slow Release - Top dress with ½ cup for every 2 feet of height each month
If you have any more questions about how to care for a Norfolk Island Pine, we will be happy to assist you in a virtual telehealth appointment with one of our Plant Specialists. Please click on one of the options below to book an appointment.