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Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla)

Introducing the Norfolk Island Pine

Norfolk Island Pine or Araucaria heterophylla is a houseplant that can usually be found easily around Christmas Time. Some people might think the plant needs discarding after the holidays are over, but this is a very easy houseplant to keep alive indoors for years and years to come. Letting you bring a bit of the forest indoors.

Araucaria heterophylla is sometimes called the Star Pine on account of its Star like appearance when looked down on from above. Its much more common name though is the Norfolk Island Pine. The name is easily understood simply because the plant comes from one tiny island between New Zealand and Australia called (can you guess?) Norfolk Island.

A Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) being grown as a houseplant in a black pot next to a white wall

Norfolk Island Pines (Araucaria heterophylla) adapt well to life as a houseplant

Although it looks (and smells) like a pine tree and even though it has "pine" in its name, it's not a true pine. People will often find it being sold as a living Christmas tree and although this is a novel and fun use for this houseplant, it can't cope with cold temperatures and should not be left outside. This is strictly an indoor plant for most people.

How do you pronounce Araucaria heterophylla correctly? Say:
ah-roe-KARE-ee-ah
het-ero-phyl-la

Is this an outdoor plant?
If you live in a part of the world that is mild all year round, then yes. Otherwise, it can be put outside during the summer but needs to be brought back inside before it gets colder.

Norfolk Island Pines are also non-toxic, so make an especially great choice for the family home with children and pets. It also makes it into the top 50 houseplants that clean the air list by NASA.

Low maintenance and easy-going, they don't need pruning or a great deal of fuss to look their best. The leaves are tough and can be touched without damaging them making them ideal plants for high traffic areas.

When you feel the needles, you'll notice they're very soft and have a kind of plastic quality, so much so you might even think they're artificial! However, if you get up close, you can smell the unmistakable fresh herbal pine smell. Absolutely glorious.

The leaves are very tactile as shown here as a person handles the branches

The leaves are very tactile, and even gentle touching releases a herbal pine scent.

There is only one variety available and even then, it's much harder to find outside of the Christmas holiday season. It's not as popular as the Poinsettia by a long way, so you might have to really search hard for these plants. This rarity is another reason not to be in a hurry to throw it out after Christmas.

Norfolk Island Pines For Sale
Lots of people ask where they can buy these plants. We can only speak for our small part of the world, so if you let us know in the comments where you got yours, that would be a big help for your fellow readers. Meanwhile, if you're still struggling here are a few more ideas.

If you're struggling to find one, search out the big box stores and supermarkets as they'll often be used as centerpieces for displays. At other times of the year, you may have to look online at sites like Etsy or eBay.

Despite this relative rarity, the price of these plants is normally pretty reasonable considering. You can pick up a bargain if you can get hold of one towards the end of the festive period when retailers want them gone from their stores and discount heavily.

Finally, some trivia for you. This plant is native only to one island in the entire world, Norfolk Island. It even features on the island's flag. Exporting this plant is very important for the islanders as trading these plants is one of their main sources of income.

Once you've got one, you most likely want to know how to care for it. The good news here, is that they're straightforward and a "beginner" type of plant, otherwise known as "forgiving". Follow the care instructions below and your's will be thriving in no time.

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Norfolk Island Pine Care Guide

Light

The infamous "good indirect light" applies here in terms of the ideal location for your plant, but what does that actually mean? Essentially it's any spot in your home that is bright but not bathed in the intense, harsh midday sunshine. Sun early morning or late afternoon is fine too.

That said, your plant will be pretty happy with a place outside of these ranges too. A little brighter and perhaps even some sun during midday will be okay, providing your plant is gradually exposed to the increased light levels over several weeks. Just plopping it down in a place like this after growing in a lower light location could result in some burning and scorch damage.

They also do okay with a slightly darker spot. The Norfolk Island Pine isn't a "low light" houseplant by any means, but it will accept being set back into a room a couple of feet away from a window. Just expect slower growing speeds and look out for any strange lopsided growth. If this happens, rotate your plant 90 degrees every few weeks or permanently move it somewhere brighter.

Watering

Fortunately, this is a reasonably forgiving houseplant with watering. I've overwatered mine and definitely underwatered it over the years and it never shows any long term damage from this. Clearly not ideal or the way you should be looking after this plant though.

Expected Water Frequency?
On average, once a week during the growing seasons and perhaps every one or two weeks in Winter is considered normal.

If given a choice, it wants to be well watered and then allow the top couple of inches to dry out thoroughly before watering again.

How long this takes will depend on how much light it's getting, the temperature and how big its pot is. For example, larger plants grown in warm, very bright locations with a small pot, are going to need significantly more regular watering. Compared to a young plant in a cooler location with less light and a larger pot.

Humidity

Coming from a subtropical country, this plant is going to prefer higher humidity levels, but it doesn't need to be excessive. The average home humidity is normally around 40% to 60% and if you can provide this, then you don't need to do anything extra.

Watch out for abnormal dry air spots in your home which will have lower humidity levels. Places next to and above active radiators and air conditioning vents can drastically lower humidity and cause problems.

Feeding

Feed occasionally over the growing seasons, which will help keep the existing needles a lovely shade of green and fuel new growth. Standard houseplant feed is all you need. I feed mine once every two months or so and it seems perfectly happy with this, although you could do it monthly if you want faster growth.

Temperature

Did you know?
It might look like one, but this is not a Christmas Tree. It will die if exposed to cold temperatures.

A common mistake with these houseplants is to treat them like you would a Christmas Tree. Again we're going to repeat ourselves by reminding you that they're not winter hardy and must not be exposed to anything close to sub-zero temperatures. No lower than 6°C (42°F).

You'll get good levels of growth with temperatures between 10°C (50°F) - 21°C (70°F).

Repotting and Soil

Interesting plants for sure, but elegant, perhaps not so much. Large Norfolk Island Pines in some homes can look out of place or untidy, so letting it grow out of control might not be the right approach.

Nice big pots with lots of space for the roots to grow into will typically mean a bigger plant in a relatively short period. By keeping the roots restricted in a smaller pot will slow or stop growth almost completely, which could be the better approach.

To grow or not to grow.
We like our Norfolk Island Pines a bit on the smaller side. But by all means you can grow it much bigger if you'd prefer. If you want to do this just increase the repotting frequency to once every two years and move it into a bigger pot each time.

The excellent news with doing it this way means you seldom need to repot it. Potentially once every four years, after the existing soil medium has broken down and no longer holding water and nutrients.

Either knock off some of the soil around the root ball and replant in the same container with fresh compost or move it into a bigger pot if you're ready for a bit more growing. In either case, use a standard potting mix like one designed for houseplants.

Propagation

Attempting to propagate a Norfolk Island Pine is tricky, so we don't recommend it. But if you really want to give it a go, you can do it by seed or cuttings.

Seed
This is the most reliable method. Mature older plants will produce large "cones" that contain the seeds you'll need. The main drawback here is that from when they first start to form on the branches, they'll take upward of 18 months to mature. After which, they'll fall off the plant and start to break apart. You can collect the seed and attempt to germinate more plants at this point.

Simply plant them up into pots containing moist compost. Then place them on a windowsill and keep warm. All being well the seeds should have germinated within a month.

Cuttings
If you decide to prune your plant you can use some of the clippings to try and grow new plants. Treat the clippings as stem cuttings and after leaving the ends to dry a little. Fill a pot or two with moist compost, then insert the cuttings, ensuring some space between each one and keep warm.

Most of the cuttings won't take. They just don't seem to respond well to this type of propagation. The best chance you will have is to propagate the very central leading tip. But in general you'll only ever remove that if you're attempting to restrict the upward growth of your plant through pruning.

Norfolk Island Palm among a number of other houseplants all growing in an office

Norfolk Island Palm among a number of other houseplants all growing in an office - Credit - Emdot

Speed of Growth

Young plants tend to grow quite slowly, and then once established and happy, it'll become quite vigorous and grow pretty fast. It's not going to climb to your ceiling like Spider-Man, but it's no snail either. Some people keep them tiny and grow as a bonsai.

Growing Tip
Growth will always be slower if the light levels are lower, or the roots are restricted in a small(ish) pot. Some people opt for this to limit the growth and stop their plant from taking over.

Height / Spread

Indoors, the height will be restricted by either the size of the pot you grow it in, or the height of your ceilings. After many years they can reach 1.8 m (6 ft).

I feel that very tall plants are much more uncommon though, and the fairly slow growth rate means it will take years before it outgrows most spaces.

The bigger issue you'll face, is likely to be its spread. It will put out new "levels", each with five separate branches a few times each year and eventually they can fan out and become quite broad. This isn't the plant to grow in a narrow space.

Close up shot showing how the branches grow to give the plant a geometric pagoda-like shape

Close up shot showing how the branches grow to give the plant a geometric pagoda-like shape

Flowers

Like most conifers, the Norfolk Island Pine doesn't flower. Instead, it will produce the familiar woody seedpods called cones (hands up if you ever collected them on walks for art projects as a child!). This is a houseplant grown for its foliage and structure only.

Are Norfolk Island Pine's safe around pets?

The ASPCA calls this plant the Australian Pine and confirms that it's non-toxic.

Pruning Norfolk Island Pine

Over time (years) the lower branches in particular, will lose vigor and start to droop. They may even start to die off by themselves. You can prune these lower down branches if you want.

When it comes to cutting back the upper branches, it gets more complicated. Part of the Norfolk Island Pine charm is its broadly symmetrical and geometric appearance, creating those pentagram shaped layers. As soon as you start chopping off these branches you throw the overall "look" out of balance.

You can prune some of these branches without harming the plant but we'd advise caution and think carefully about what look you're trying to achieve at the end of your pruning session before even thinking about picking up the scissors.

Finally, what about the central vertical growing stem? Mainly people ask about this because they're having height issues. In other words "Help my plants touching the ceiling!" type of problem. In any other circumstances, we'd advise you do not cut the central stem. There is a good chance it will stunt growth permanently as well as giving the top a "flat" and funny look.

If you're at roof height already, well, you've pretty much got no choice but to remove the top section of the plant.

Anything else?

Spray Glitter
To add to the festival charm, it's fairly normal to find these plants sprayed with glitter. However the glitter can block the leaves, which the plant needs for Photosynthesis. If your pine is coated in glitter wash it off after Christmas is over.

You're more likely to find these houseplants for sale during the festive holidays. Often they could be dressed up to look more seasonal and Christmassy. But can they be treated like a normal pine tree and decorated from head to roots?

They absolutely can be decorated with bling and even act as an alternative Christmas tree from year to year. However the branches are not stiff and firm like most pine trees, so it will only accept gentle weight before bending, but if you can look past that, then go nuts with your design skills. Show off your pictures below or tag our Instagram - @our_houseplants

Photo of a decorated Norfolk Pine with Christmas seasonal items Credit to Flower Factor - Blumz by JRDesigns in metro Detroit USA

Photo of a decorated Norfolk Pine with Christmas seasonal items Credit to Flower Factor - Blumz by JRDesigns in metro Detroit USA

How to Care for the Norfolk Island Pine Recap

  1. Medium to Bright Light Very low light can cause the growth to be lopsided. Very bright intense sun can burn and damage the foliage. Anything between these extremes is fine.

  2. Moderate Watering Water well and then wait until the soil has almost dried out before doing it again.

  3. Temperature Prefers cooler temperatures, but not a hardy houseplant. Never lower than 6°C (42°F). To keep your plant happy, aim for a temperature range between 10°C (50°F) - 21°C (70°F).

  4. Feeding Try to feed once every month. None required in winter.

  • This is not a true Christmas Tree. It won't survive cold temperatures.
  • Keep away from very low humidity areas.
  • Do not prune the vertical growing stems as it could stop the plant growing completely.

Norfolk Island Pine Problems

Branches are browning

The branches and stem will normally brown with age. The stems age and thicken up and give the plant more support for all the newer growth higher up the plant.

If the browning is happening on the needles or at different parts of the plant then it's a possible sign of sun damage burning your plant. This should be easy to establish if you look back at how it's been cared for. If sun is indeed a factor, move your plant away from this spot or provide some window shading.

Close up photo of some yellowing Leaves on a Norfolk Pine

Close up photo of some brown stems on a Norfolk Pine

Yellowing Leaves / Needles

In the photo above, you can see some yellowing needles. If this is happening lower down on the plant it's normal and a sign of aging. Older Norfolk Pine's tend not to have needles on the lower stems.

If the yellowing is happing elsewhere, then it's usually a temperature issue (too cold or too hot). Under and overwatering can also trigger some yellowing, but this plant is quite tolerant of this, so it would need to be quite extreme drought or waterlogging for this to happen. In most cases I'd be exploring the temperature it's been exposed to over the last few weeks.

Droopy Branches

Usually caused by one of three things.

  • Extreme temperature
    This is neither a hardy houseplant nor one that likes it too hot. Both cold and hot temperatures can cause drooping to appear suddenly over a day or so. Stick to the temperature range we've highlighted.
  • Underwatering
    My plant will regularly "hang" a little more when it needs watering. It's not as obvious as a Peace Lily Droop, but it's still noticeable. Feel the soil and if it's dry you'll know this is likely the cause.
  • Lack of Feeding
    If the branches and leaves look thin or weak and there is a fair amount of constant drooping over many months then it's a good sign the plant needs more regular feeding.

Random browning in the upper branches / leaves

As mentioned a few problems up, some browning is normal in the lower branches. It can also happen in the upper regions and is normally called corking. If it's confined to the "joints" where the side branches meet the central stem then it's okay. The browning is providing strength to areas under weight pressure (see photo below).

Browning on the tips of branches could signify that the humidity is very low, i.e. the air surrounding your plant is too arid.

Browning or corking in random places will likely be caused again by sun damage or some kind of pest. Check the care and placement of your plant to rule out possible sun scorch. If that's fine have a good look over your Norfolk Island Pine for any signs of pests and treat accordingly.

Brown corking on a Norfolk Pine branches

Brown corking on a Norfolk Pine's branches isn't normally something to be worried about


Our story with this houseplant

Just being honest here. There is something about the Norfolk Island Pine that isn't attractive. It's unruly, untidy and up close, it kinda feels like one of those hideous artificial plastic plants.

Just being honest here. There is something about the Norfolk Island Pine that isn't attractive.

A sentiment that I think is shared by many, which might account for its scarcity around these parts. It's just not a popular houseplant. I didn't see one in the flesh for years and for someone who is always in one plant store or another that's quite a feat.

However, one year a few weeks before Christmas I spotted one. It definitely didn't stop me in my tracks from its beautiful or striking looks but more to do with shock. Here was one of these plants, in real life and right in front of me. Finally. I brought it more for the novelty and thinking that in time it would help me write an article for the site.

Holding the leaves and branch of a Norfolk Island Pine

Holding the leaves and branch of a Norfolk Island Pine

Christmas passed and without a clear idea where I wanted to keep it, it ended up regulated into a disused corner of my office. Despite minimal care for a good six months, it thrived. Before I knew it, it had grown several inches and still more growth was coming. At this point it caught my attention.

Yes, it still wasn't classically pretty, but the plastic-like needles were suddenly incredibly tactile and inviting. I found you could handle the leaves roughly and still, it was fine. Also the smell. So subtle but vivid from only a gentle brushing. A fresh and herbal pine smell like walking through a forest.

After researching it and learning more about its history. How unbelievably rare it was to find growing in any parts of the world other than on Norfolk Island. How important it was for the people on this island (trading these plants is one of the main sources of income for them). Similar to the Kentia Palm, which is grown and traded in a similar way (on a very nearby island, actually!).


A Norfolk Island Travel Guide Video so you can get a sense of the Norfolk pine origin story and where these plants come from

Ecologically it's one of the most important houseplants. These plants form part of a rich and against the odds history. How fantastic is that to have it sharing my living space.

I don't know, but that rich, detailed history and backstory had me feeling all sorts of feels. It's a massive talking point when a visitor to my home asks about it. Any criticisms I felt before faded slightly and now I'm pretty proud to have acquired one.


About the Author

Tom Knight

Tom Knight

Over the last 20 years Tom has successfully owned hundreds of houseplants and is always happy to share knowledge and lend his horticulture skills to those in need. He is the main content writer for the Team.

Also on Ourhouseplants.com

(Article / Gallery) Photo credit of Christmas decorated Norfolk Pine - Flower Factor
(Article / Gallery) Photo credit of Norfolk Island Palm growing in an office - Emdot


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