Indoor Christmas trees can be attractive plants

Published: Sunday, Dec. 11 2011 4:00 p.m. MST

Norfolk Island Pine

Larry Sagers

Some plants are almost family members. One that fits that category in our household is an attractive plant that gets pressed into service this time of year as a small living Christmas tree.

I'm not certain what year this tree joined our family, but it makes its home inside my greenhouse for most of the year. It was a tiny tree in a small pot when we adopted it, but now is a respectable height of about 4 feet.

I doubt that Captain James Cook knew that one of his discoveries when he made his around the world trip would be on Norfolk Island. He and his crew were the first Europeans to visit this tiny, obscure island. Obscure is a good description because it is located nearly 1,000 miles east of Australia, which explains another reason for its fame.

Cook certainly had no idea that one of the native trees named after the island would someday play a part in Christmas celebrations throughout the world. The Norfolk Island pine is as close to filling that bill as any plant I know.

Although most of us would know this as an interior plant like mine, it does not grow that way on an island where it is native. In the tropical island paradise it can reach a height of more than 200 feet while only spreading to 10 feet wide at the base.

It is not known whether the Cook expedition collected seeds, but the island and its sister island remained obscure until another English sea captain helped lead others to the location.

Capt. William Bligh, commander of the HMS Bounty, was transporting breadfruit trees from the South Pacific to the West Indies. Fletcher Christian led the famous "Mutiny on the Bounty" and set Bligh and 18 others adrift in a 23-foot boat with little food and no maps.

Bligh traveled more than 3,600 miles before reaching help, while the mutineers sailed to Pitcairn Island, where they remained undiscovered for almost 30 years. Some of them moved to nearby Norfolk Island, and their descendants are the island's major ethnic group today.

Norfolk Island, measuring some 13 square miles, is the only place where these trees occur naturally. It has no arable lands, but one of the major industries is the exporting of the Norfolk Island pine seeds. This tree is so important to the island that it is featured on the national flag.

Norfolk Island pine is the genus /Araucaria/ and the species /excelsia/. There are 15 other genus members, but only the Norfolk Island pine and the monkey puzzle tree are common ornamentals in warmer climates. All members of this genus are native to South America, Australia or the South Sea islands.

After seeds were exported to Europe, they became a very important interior plant. By the late 1800s, there were more than 700 growers in Belgium growing the trees and more than one quarter of a million trees were imported into the United States each year.

The trees appeal to plant lovers because they have regular, symmetrical tiers of branches with short green needles. The trees can easily grow 3 to 5 feet high inside the home if they have the right conditions.

The right conditions are to replicate the tropical paradise of the islands. Constant temperatures of near 70 degrees, abundant sunlight and consistent water help the trees thrive.

Inside the home, light can be a problem. Keep them near a window where they get plenty of bright but indirect light. The foliage will sunburn if it gets too hot from the sun shining through a window. If the light levels are too low, the plant does not produce food to grow.

Controlling the soil moisture is also critical. These plants like the soil moist but not too wet. Water when the top of the soil starts to dry out. Apply enough water to allow some to drain out the bottom. This flushes excess salts away so the foliage is not burned by excess salt in the soil.

The plants only need fertilizer when they are actively growing, so wait until the days get longer and the light levels rise before adding nutrients. Start fertilizing if needed in March in our area and continue applications through September, but discontinue applications for the fall and winter.

It is also difficult to control the relative humidity inside your home. Use a pebble tray or run a humidifier on your furnace or near the plants to keep the air from getting too dry.

As I mentioned, our adopted tree started as a very small tree and I repotted it as needed over the years. I likely will not repot it again, because if it gets too large, it won't fit on the table at Christmas and it would be too large to move easily.

After Christmas, the lights and other ornaments come down and the tree moves to the greenhouse. They are attractive plants that grow well on the interior of your home and the Christmas season is an added bonus as these are the only true indoor Christmas trees we have.

Garden Tips

Red Butte Garden Winter Solstice Celebration, Saturday, Dec. 17, 10 a.m.- 1 p.m. Free with general garden admission.

Visit the Children's Garden to celebrate the return of the light! Wander through the garden, warm your hands at the fire barrels, enjoy a hot drink and make a wish at the yule log. Participants can also create wonderful winter candles and their own solstice head wreath.

Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.

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