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Grow a potted Norfolk pine for the holidays and beyond

For more than a million years they stand

Planted with care by Father Time,

Tended with love by nature’s hand

A beautiful tree, the Norfolk pine.

Archie Bigg, “The Norfolk Pine,” 2014

I enjoy receiving emails from people who read the column because they remind me that I’m not just communicating with my computer screen. The other day, I got an email from Edward who wrote, “I am thinking about buying a potted dwarf Alberta spruce for this coming holiday; however, I live in an apartment and transferring it outdoors isn’t an option. Is it possible for me to keep it indoors all year round?”

I had to disappoint Edward by telling him conifers usually don’t survive indoors more than a few weeks. I bought a potted dwarf Alberta spruce for the holidays several years ago, and it died before I could transplant it outside in the spring.

Yet, all is not lost. A conifer that’s better suited for indoor growing is the Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla). If given proper care indoors, these evergreen plants, which are not true pines, have a much better success rate than other conifers.

Members of the Araucaria family have been around since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. In fact, paleontologists believe sauropod dinosaurs evolved their long necks in part so they could eat the pine cones that grow on the top branches of Araucaria trees, some of which can reach up to 200 feet tall.

Don’t worry; the heterophylla species will grow only 5 to 8 feet tall indoors during the next 10 to 12 years. This species is native to tiny Norfolk Island (13 square miles), located between Australia and New Zealand.

A large number of Norfolk pines are shipped from plant nurseries in south Florida to garden centers, making them a popular potted Christmas tree. An added bonus of growing a Norfolk pine is they are on NASA’s list of houseplants that clean indoor air of pollutants.

Indoor-grown Norfolk pines may initially look a bit spindly (like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree), but the branches grow bushier as the tree matures, particularly if the pot is set by a window that provides bright, indirect sunlight, or the pot is moved outdoors during warm weather.

As subtropical plants, Norfolk pines won’t tolerate our hot, dry summers; nor will they survive outdoors when temperatures dip below freezing. They grow best when temperatures are between 55 and 75 degrees and the air is somewhat humid (50-60 percent). A humidifier will help, or the branches can be misted daily with nonchlorinated water.

If you decide to grow a Norfolk pine, pot it right after purchase. It’s likely the plant has been in the same pot for a while and its roots have girdled the bottom. Gently remove the tree from the pot, tease apart the roots, and examine the rootball and soil to make sure there are no signs of insects or disease.

Transplant the tree into a pot that is two sizes bigger around than the old one. The new container should be deep enough to allow the plant roots to reach down into the soil without hitting the bottom of the container. Make sure the pot has several drainage holes in the bottom.

Norfolk pines like sandy, well-draining soil that is slightly acidic (pH 6.0-6.5). Make your own potting medium by combining one part horticultural sand/grit, one part peat moss, and one part potting soil. Fill the pot, leaving 2 inches of space below the rim. Set the tree in the planting hole so the bottom of the trunk is even with the soil line.

Top dress with a half-inch of compost, and then mulch with a half-inch of wood chips, bark or decorative pebbles. Add more compost each spring and fall to replenish the soil with organic matter and nutrients.

The potted tree should be quarter-turned every week so it doesn’t lean to one side as it follows the sun. Water only when the top inch of the potting soil has dried out.

Avoid pruning except to cut off any dead branches. It’s normal for some browning and needle drop from the lowest branches as the plant matures; but if many needles are turning brown, it’s probably because the plant isn’t getting enough sunlight or it’s getting too much/too little water.

Other reasons potted conifers don’t do well indoors include central heating is sucking the moisture out of the air and making the room too hot/dry; holiday lights strung around the tree’s branches are drying out the needles; there’s a lack of organic matter and nutrients in the potting soil; or the roots have outgrown the container.

The verse that started off this column comes from a poem written by Norfolk Island resident Archie Bigg, who tells the story of how the island’s native pine tree almost became extinct. This tiny South Pacific island was once a penal colony for the British. Many of the island’s residents, including Bigg, claim to be descendants of mutineers aboard the HMS Bounty.

Read the story at www.discovernorfolkisland.com. You may decide to grow a Norfolk pine indoors as a reminder of the resilience of both people and plants.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/ and check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.