Try a tropical Christmas tree

It's not statuesque, but a Norfolk Island pine is cheery and charming.

Joanne Ciccarello/Staff
Norfolk Island pine

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 need an outdoor adventure. 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.

Two years ago, when we put our Maryland house on the market, we decided not to get our usual tree.

But I 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 stood. So I bought a little Norfolk Island pine, added a string of 20 lights, a few bows, and – voilà – Christmas tree!

It wasn't our usual statuesque seven-footer, but it did just fine for that unusual holiday season.

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. They are a remnant of an ancient tree family.

Here at home, the Norfolk Island pine is almost always grown indoors as a compact houseplant, since it is far too tender for most areas of the United States. 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.

Norfolk Island pines are relatively easy to grow and make appealing accent plants 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 to bright indirect light.

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

Despite their tropical origin, these trees prefer an environment on the cool side. Ideally, temperatures should range from 50 to 70 degrees F. – anything in the 80s will likely cause the needles to 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. Let some water run out of the bottom of the container, then discard any excess in an hour or so.

They don't like to be pruned. In fact, pruning can deform these plants. The only trimming required is to remove any dead lower branches. If you prune a tip or a healthy branch, the tree will not grow at that spot again.

Feed your tree lightly every other month in 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 didn't have my Norfolk Island pine long enough to worry about fertilizing or repotting – I gave it to a neighbor before we moved to the mountains.

But I must confess, even though I missed my heirloom ornaments that Christmas, the little tree made our holidays merry and bright.

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