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article imageA Norfolk Island pine is not just a houseplant for the holidays

By Karen Graham     Dec 21, 2020 in Science
Many people are gifted with potted Norfolk Island Pines during the holidays. My daughter gave this journalist one for Christmas., but I had no idea how to care for it. My curiosity took me on a journey of discovery about the beautiful houseplant.
The Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla), is a vascular plant in a very ancient family of coniferous trees. The family achieved its maximum diversity during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods when it was distributed almost worldwide.
Most of the plants in the Northern Hemisphere vanished in the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, and they are now largely confined to the Southern Hemisphere. Today, we can find these conifers in the Southern Hemisphere's South Pacific Ocean between New Caledonia and New Zealand.
Elsewhere in the world, they are grown and sold widely as houseplants, especially at Christmas. “Many stores sell these evergreen houseplants during the holidays,” says University of Missouri Extension agronomist Pat Miller. “These easy-to-grow plants often come decorated and are perfect for gift-giving or to keep for yourself.” Sadly, these wonderful trees are often discarded after the holidays.
Araucaria heterophylla (Norfolk Island pines) in habitat on Norfolk Island.
Araucaria heterophylla (Norfolk Island pines) in habitat on Norfolk Island.
thinboyfatter (CC BY 2.0)
But here is what is really strange about the Norfolk Island Pine - It is actually not a true pine. Yet, just like other conifers, they produce cones. Each tree can have both male and female cones, with the male cones among the largest among all conifer cones, on average.
Conifers are a division of vascular land plants containing a single extant class, Pinopsida. They are cone-bearing seed plants, a subset of gymnosperms. Conifers also include a number of shrubs, as well as larches, pines, hemlocks, redwoods, spruces, and yews.[
Norfolk Island pines are slow-growing, reaching heights of 50–65 meters (160–210 ft), with straight vertical trunks and symmetrical branches, The tree, in the wild, is resilient to incessant offshore winds and salt. The tree likes a Mediterranean and humid subtropical climate. Their trunk can sometimes reach 3 meters (10 feet) in diameter.
Araucaria heterophylla cones and foliage.
Araucaria heterophylla cones and foliage.
Tree-species at Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
For growing the Norfolk pine as a houseplant, this translates to keeping the soil uniformly moist but not wet, I also read that if your home has a low humidity level, a misting with water once a week is helpful.It is suggested that Norfolk Island pines kept as houseplants not be allowed to get over five feet in height.
The first sighting of a Norfolk Pine
In 1774, during his second voyage to the South Pacific in HMS Resolution, Captain James Cook sighted large forests of tall, straight trees that appeared to be suitable for use as masts and yards for sailing ships on Norfolk Island.
However, in 1788, when Norfolk Island became occupied by British convicts, it was found that Norfolk Island pine trees were not resilient enough for those uses, and the industry was abandoned. Back in the 1950s, a plywood manufacturer in Sydney, Australia attempted to start up a timber export industry using Norfolk Island pines.
Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla). Gerroa  NSW Australia  March 2009.
Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla). Gerroa, NSW Australia, March 2009.
John Tann from Sydney, Australia (CC BY 2.0)
And while the trees made excellent plywood - the Norfolk Island Advisory Council deemed the whole idea as unsustainable, reserving ant timber production for local use.
Today, the species survival is not threatened by the houseplant trade because they are grown commercially in South Florida for the houseplant industry. Most are shipped to grocery stores, discount retailers, and garden centers during November. Many of these are sprayed with a light coating of green paint prior to sale to increase their eye appeal, although I think this is abhorrent.
Norfolk pines in their native habitat are now classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as vulnerable. This is because, since Captain Cook's time, the native stands of the trees have been much reduced - for a variety of reasons, including the introduction of invasive species, farming, and poor land management. The remaining stands are now within Norfolk Island National park where they have some protection.
More about Norfolk Island Pine, Capt James Cook, coniferous plant, not a true pine, Southern hemisphere
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