How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Norfolk Pine
Norfolk Island pine makes a beautiful plant to give and receive at holiday time. Its vibrant evergreen needles and symmetrical form give it a stately look as a tabletop decoration or houseplant. Norfolk pines bring joy beyond the holidays, too! Keep your tree and follow this guide from gardening expert Katherine Rowe on how best to plant, grow, and care for Norfolk Island pine.
Norfolk Island pine (or Norfolk pine) pops up on nursery shelves at holiday time, as it makes a beautiful plant to give and receive. Sold primarily in small containers, it makes a sweet holiday tree decorated in the spirit of the season.
This graceful, vibrant, needled evergreen brightens the winter season as an indoor decoration. However, its beauty lasts beyond the holidays, and it can be grown as an indoor houseplant year-round or outdoors in mild, warmer months.
So don’t toss or doom the pretty tree to the compost pile after the new year. Add it to the houseplant jungle, or keep it as a statuesque accent to your interior decor. In subtropical climates, Norfolk pine becomes a stately landscape specimen.
‘Araucaria heterophylla’ Plant Overview
Plant Type Needled evergreen
Native Area Norfolk Island
Exposure Full sun to part shade
Height 3 – 200 feet
Watering Requirements Medium
Pests & Diseases Scale, aphids, spider mites, mushroom root rot
Soil Type Sandy, porous, acidic
Hardiness Zone 9-10
What Is It?
Norfolk pine is not truly a pine but a relative of the Monkey Puzzle tree native to Chile. Norfolk pine’s genus, Araucaria, stems from the Araucanian Indians of central Chile, to whom the genus is native. The species heterophylla is taken from the Greek term that indicates “varied leaves.” It has curled, needle-like juvenile leaves and more scaly, overlapping adult leaves.
A tree with an exciting history, this pine was discovered on the second voyage of Captain James Cook (1772-1775) on an uninhabited island off the coast of Australia. Norfolk Island housed the giant trees along its basalt cliffs and interior rainforests. In their native range, they can grow up to 200 feet tall with trunks six feet in diameter. The tall, upright trunks looked promising for ship masts but ultimately proved to be too brittle.
This tree was introduced into cultivation in 1793, and today, in North America, it’s the most popular of the genus. It is readily sold at holiday time as a festive live Christmas tree and as a houseplant.
This stately tree lends a lush, tropical look to the garden or home. It’s pyramidal to conical in shape with symmetrical, whorled branches.
With five branches to a whorl, Norfolk pine spins a graceful habit around a single, sturdy, upright trunk. Deep green needles are soft and full along the stem.
This tree, a native of the South Pacific islands, thrives in subtropical climates, particularly along the coast. On Norfolk Island, the tree grows on rocky seaside cliffs and in temperate rainforests with high humidity.
This species is common in South Florida and Hawaii. It also grows in Southern California and along the Central Coast up to San Francisco Bay. It is wind tolerant, can handle coastal conditions, and prefers tropical climates.
If you live in a mild climate, you can plant these beautiful trees outdoors. Give them plenty of space, as they can reach 80’ tall (and beyond). Their graceful, symmetrical branches will also require plenty of room to reach about twenty feet.
For most of us, Norfolk pines must grow indoors, at least during cool months. They are well-suited to container culture as slow growers, though they will eventually reach the ceiling as they thrive in their houseplant location.
Keep yours indoors year-round, or move it to a bright garden location as temperatures warm in spring, depending on your climate.
If you’re growing your tree in a container, it should only require repotting every three to four years. When roots become visible above the pot’s soil level, it’s time to move to a larger container.
Opt for a pot at least one inch larger in diameter than the current container. An even larger pot will allow the plant to remain in its new pot longer.
Growing from Seed
These trees produce cylindrical male pollen cones and globular female cones. They may be grown from seed, though the offspring won’t retain the symmetrical, ornamental branching tiers. Branching will be more widely spaced than propagation from cuttings.
To grow from seed, use soil that is moist and peat-based. Place the seed flat on the soil medium and do not cover. Mist the seeds until germination. The seeds germinate quickly, usually within 10-15 days.
How to Grow
Growing Norfolk pine is relatively easy as long as a few vital cultural requirements are met. As many of us need to grow it in a container for optimal conditions, monitoring water, light, and humidity needs are primary.
Indoors, give Norfolk pine plenty of light. Place it near a sunny window but out of direct afternoon rays. Avoid a north-facing window, if possible, where light exposure is the least. Rotate the container occasionally to ensure uniform light conditions so the trunk won’t need to bend or curve toward the light source.
In the landscape, it grows in full to partial sun. It benefits from protection from bright afternoon sunlight, which can burn leaves or cause yellowing foliage. The trees can tolerate more sun exposure if the soil remains moist. Full morning sun is best for a uniform, symmetrical form.
Ensure the soil has enough moisture and is not too wet or dry. It can tolerate somewhat drier soils but not constantly damp or overly dry.
How best to attain just the right amount of water? Wait until the soil surface is dry to the touch. When the soil surface is dry, water thoroughly. If in a container, allow the pot to drain. Err on the side of dryness between watering, but don’t allow the plant to dry out completely. Branches will brown and drop if water fluctuates wildly and stresses the plant.
Norfolk pine requires porous, slightly acidic, well-drained soils. In a container setting, Norfolk pine benefits from soil amended with a small percentage of sand and peat moss to increase porosity and acidity.
Temperature and Humidity
Ideal temperatures are between 55-65℉. Temperatures below 50℉ may stress the plant. The trees prefer nighttime temperatures that are ten degrees cooler than daytime temperatures.
This tree likes humidity. It thrives with humidity levels at 50%. Fortunately, it is adaptable to the dry conditions of homes and offices. To increase humidity indoors, mist the plant or place the container in a tray of pebbles and water. Grouping the tree with other houseplants may slightly affect increasing humidity.
Keep the plant out of heat and air conditioning drafts (winter can be especially drying). Using a humidifier or growing in a greenhouse environment is optimal for tropical-loving Norfolk pine.
For this species, high temperatures at or above 95℉ can cause tip damage. While this is mostly cosmetic, ensuring that the plant has consistent access to moisture is crucial in reducing the impact.
You don’t need to fertilize your tree, but it may help to give a diluted liquid houseplant fertilizer throughout spring and summer, especially when growing in a container.
Fertilize as new growth appears in spring, and refrain in the fall and winter as active growing slows. Don’t fertilize if you want the tree to remain compact (hence not encouraging rapid growth).
This low-maintenance indoor plant or garden focal point doesn’t require heavy pruning or cutback. Pruning does not encourage new growth for this species, so it should be avoided unless absolutely necessary to control height.
Should it reach the ceiling and require topping, cut back only as much as needed to maintain its height. Shape symmetrical branches accordingly to retain a more compact form. This pruning may work to preserve the plant in its indoor location, but again, it is generally not recommended.
Branches may brown or drop if the tree experiences periods of stress. These can be cut off. Checking water, humidity, and fertilizer levels (excessive fertilizing, for example) may remedy browning.
By far, the most reliable propagation method for the Norfolk pine is from seed. These seeds quickly germinate for a conifer species and are typically reliable growers.
Propagation via other methods is challenging, though it can be tried through herbaceous cuttings of tender growth of terminal shoots. Plants from cuttings have the same genetic makeup as their parent plants, but as you’re using branch tissue rather than trunk tissue, you may not have as much symmetry in a tree grown from a cutting. Ensure cuttings are from soft, terminal stems for best results.
Propagation is slow from cuttings but relatively fast from seed. However, all trees take a while to reach maturity, so remember that a tree’s life should be measured in years, not days or months.
To propagate from seeds, you’ll first need a reasonably fresh Norfolk pine cone, preferably one harvested from the tree once it’s well-aged and is starting to open. A light twist of the cone should remove it easily from the branch it formed upon.
Under each scale of the cone, you’ll find 1-2 pine seeds. These seeds are flat and often have a “wing” attached to the upper part of the seed coat. As seeds fall out of the cones in the wild, the wind will catch that wing and move the seed further from its parent tree. For hand sowing, the wing is not as essential but still serves a purpose in ensuring the seed stays flat against the soil’s surface.
To plant your seeds, lay them directly on the soil surface and do not cover them with soil. Keep them damp to ensure the moisture can penetrate through the seed coat, signaling to the young plant inside that it’s time to germinate. Moist soil is usually enough to allow that moisture transfer, but you can also mist the seed directly to simulate the effects of humidity on a forest floor or a light rain. Ensure it has access to dappled sunlight to germinate, which usually takes 10-15 days but can sometimes take up to 30 days in nonoptimal conditions.
With a few steps and early monitoring, cuttings can produce new plants. However, it should be noted that the tissues of a branch are subtly different than that of a Norfolk pine’s trunk. You may have more lopsided or inconsistent growth from a cutting than you might from a seed. If symmetry in your plant is essential, starting from seed is best. However, it’s possible to raise a Norfolk pine from a cutting and then harvest seeds from its eventual cones, treating the less symmetrical specimen as a nursery plant.
Here’s how best to take cuttings:
- Cut a four-to-six-inch piece of stem from a healthy branch. Cut the stem at a 45-degree angle to ensure more water and rooting hormone coverage.
- Remove the foliage from the bottom ⅔ of the cutting. Keep cuttings moist until ready to pot.
- Moisten the cutting and dip the lower stem in rooting hormone, coating generously. Tap off any excess rooting powder.
- Plant the cutting in at least two inches of moist, well-draining potting mix. Coarse construction sand, vermiculite, perlite, and peat make suitable mixtures.
- Place the pot in a bright, warm location, avoiding direct sunlight (which can make the environment too hot).
- Water/mist as needed, keeping the soil evenly moist as the cutting has no root system.
- The cutting is ready to be repotted when it gives resistance against a gentle tug. This means roots have taken hold.
- Plant the cutting in a pot, keeping it indoors in a bright spot or moving outside if conditions are mild.
This plant is generally problem-free, though occasional insect infestation or root rot can occur indoors or in overly wet conditions. Watch for scale, spider mites, aphids, and mushroom root rot.
More often than pests or diseases, the plant may yellow, brown, and drop branches due to water fluctuations, excessive fertilizing, intense sunlight, and low-humidity environments. If the plant shows signs of stress, check these cultural conditions first.
Spider mites, aphids, mealybugs, and scale may be an issue. For outdoor growing, occasionally spray the plant with water during warm months when pests are most active to deter and knock insects off the stems. A simple horticultural soap can rid the plant of insects if infestation occurs.
Mushroom root rot caused by the fungus Armillaria, or honey fungus, attacks and kills the roots of many perennial and woody plants. It often appears as a white powdery substance at the ground level of the bark. Sometimes, clusters of honey-brown mushrooms appear above the soil.
Armillaria can cause sudden death of the plant. If this fungus is present, excavating and removing the plant and soil is the only control. Remove the infected area to keep it from spreading to other garden areas.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I keep my Norfolk Island pine beyond the holiday season?
Keep them year-round as houseplants and, in warm climates, as garden specimens. Make sure to offer plenty of light, well-drained soil, and humidity. Norfolk pine makes a striking addition to the landscape or as living interior decor in any season.
How do you overwinter Norfolk pine?
In USDA hardiness zones 9-10, Norfolk pine can be planted outdoors. In colder climates, keep Norfolk pine in a container and move it indoors during winter. Keep humidity up, water evenly in a well-draining pot, and keep away from heat vents and fireplaces to avoid excessive drying.
Where does Norfolk Island Pine originate?
This species was discovered on the uninhabited Norfolk Island off the coast of Australia. It prefers subtropical coastal climates but is adaptable and can tolerate drier soils once established.
Norfolk Island pine is a stately, graceful evergreen with a uniquely symmetrical form and shiny, soft needles. Its tropical aesthetic brings the garden or houseplant collection a lush look year-round. Keep this tree beyond the holiday season, or gift one at holiday time so the recipient can enjoy it for years to come.
Decorate with strands of tiny lights for a festive holiday season. If your tree is small, use it as a tabletop decoration. In a container, underplant it with white cyclamen and violas for a colorful display beneath the graceful foliage.