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No room for a Christmas tree? Try a Norfolk Island pine.

A Norfolk Island pine on a tabletop makes an excellent stand-in for a Christmas tree, and will live for many holidays to come.

By Lynn Hunt / December 14, 2010

Any easy-to-care-for Norfolk Island pine is a good substitute for a traditional Christmas tree, especially when space or time is running short.

Courtesy of Lynn Hunt

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The day we set off to find “the” Christmas tree is one of my favorite times of the year. It’s usually the day after Thanksgiving when we’re still stuffed from the holiday feast and in need of an outdoor adventure.

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I say "adventure," because the search for my perfect tree can last an entire day.

Before leaving home, I bring down the boxes of holiday decorations and set each ornament out on the dining room table. There’s everything from Woody Woodpecker (who does his famous laugh when you press a button) to pipe-cleaner Santas that belonged to my grandmother. My rocking horses, glass turtles, and miniature carved birds are lined up, waiting to be placed on the bushy, beautifully symmetrical Fraser fir soon after it comes through the front door.

This year however, for a variety of reasons, we decided not to get our traditional tree. I discovered I really missed looking through the ornaments – it’s rather like visiting with old friends. And I missed the festive lights in the corner where the tree usually resides.

So I bought a little Norfolk Island pine, added a string of 20 lights, a few bows, and voila -- Christmas tree! It isn’t our usual statuesque 7-footer, but it will do just fine for this holiday season.

A winter ornamental from the tropics

Araucaria heterophylla is native to a small island in the South Pacific that was sighted in 1774 during Capt. James Cook’s second voyage of exploration. The island was named in honor of the Duchess of Norfolk, and the trees seen growing there were estimated to be more than 200 feet tall.

Here at home, the Norfolk Island pine is almost always grown indoors as a compact houseplant since it is far too tender to live outdoors in most areas of the country.

Its popularity spikes during the holiday season for obvious reasons. But these charming little trees need not be thrown out with the dried-up poinsettias once January arrives. With proper care, they will last for many Christmases to come.

Indoor climate is the key

Norfolk Island pines are relatively easy to grow and make appealing accent plants all year-round thanks to their graceful branches and soft, touchable needles. They can tolerate low lighting for a brief time (such as during the holidays), but grow best when exposed bright light.

An hour or so of direct sunlight won’t hurt, but be sure to rotate the tree a quarter turn every two weeks to keep it from becoming lopsided.

Despite their tropical homeland, these trees prefer an environment on the cool side. Ideally, temperatures should range from 50 and 70 degrees F. (10 to 21 C) -- anything much warmer will likely cause needle drop.

Norfolk Island pines don’t require as much water as other houseplants. In fact, they won’t tolerate saturated soil. Give them a drink only when the top inch or so of soil in the pot feels dry to the touch. Allow some water to run out of the bottom of the container, then discard any excess in an hour or so.

Feed your tree lightly every other month during spring and summer with a fertilizer specifically formulated for indoor foliage plants. Some experts suggest repotting every three years; others say the practice disturbs the roots and isn’t necessary.

I haven’t had my Norfolk Island pine long enough to worry about repotting, so I can’t give advice. But I must confess even though I’m missing my heirloom ornaments this year, the little tree is making our holidays merry and bright.

PSSST: Although most roses benefit from an occasional haircut, pruning can deform a Norfolk Island pine. The only trimming required is removing any dead lower branches. If you prune a tip or healthy branch, new growth will go upward, not outward, destroying the shape.

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Lynn Hunt, the Rose Whisperer, is one of nine garden writers who blog regularly at Diggin' It. She's an accredited horticultural judge and a Consulting Rosarian Emeritus for the American Rose Society. She has won dozens of awards for her writing in newspapers, magazines, and television. She grows roses and other plants in her garden on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. To read more by Lynn, click here.You can also follow her on Twitter.

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