Friday, December 3, 2010

Araucaria Heterophylla

It’s been many years since I dragged a real tree into my home and decorated it for Christmas. One of the main reasons I stopped buying them is that they take up too much. But even if they didn’t, I still wouldn’t bother with a live tree because - after years of using them – more reasons ‘not to use them’ piled up. For example, somewhere along the way I got sick and tired of cleaning up those sticky pine needles that seemed to hang around the house for weeks, sometimes months. And while I do appreciate the smell of pine, after a couple of weeks of sniffing it – daily - it starts to become an irritant. And then there’s the fire hazard. I’m absolutely – irrationally – convinced that sooner or later one of these trees will dry out too much and go up in flames – but only the one in my house, of course.

Maybe if I hadn’t used live Christmas trees during the years when the kids were very young and the house was full of cats, I wouldn’t be so opposed to them. Images of cats and kids climbing the tree, attempting to eat it and drinking from the water reservoir in the stand have undoubtedly distorted my opinion of them. The trees, not the kids. Maybe if I tried again after so many years, I’d feel differently. Maybe.

Or maybe not.

But in all fairness to these beautiful, traditional ornaments, I do agree that they are far more attractive than fake ones, that pine smells much nicer than plastic, that the pine needle cleanup is not that big a deal and that the nerve-racking incidences that naturally occur when cats and kids meet a live tree make for some very amusing stories years later. Furthermore, packing up the family and heading out to select the perfect tree together - that you’ll spend the next evening decorating while you sing along to the Christmas carols booming from the CD player - is a heartwarming tradition.

So even though it’s quite obvious that I won’t be bringing home a live Christmas tree this year, and maybe not any subsequent year, I do love the idea of them, as I’m sure many of you do too. But if you’re like me and you don’t want to bother with a real tree, but do like the idea of them, there’s a nice alternative that will allow you to enjoy the look of a Pine tree indoors but on a much smaller scale. And that miniature look-alike is the Araucaria heterophylla, known as the Norfolk Island Pine.

Let’s take a closer look at this very popular plant that floods the stores during the holiday season, sometimes decorated with miniature ornaments and tiny lights.

A Miniature Christmas Tree

Native to Norfolk Island off Australia, this charming tree is an attractive evergreen conifer. In its South Pacific home the Norfolk Island Pine can grow up to 60 meters tall. Indoors, it will eventually – albeit slowly - hit the ceiling, reaching heights of 6 to 10 feet if its needs are met. Although not a true pine, tiers of shiny, dark green, needle-covered branches growing horizontally give it the appearance of one. This is a slow grower, generally adding one new whorl of symmetrical branches per growing season. New foliage emerges in a light green shade and becomes darker as it ages.

Available at local stores right before Christmas, this indoor favourite is a charming holiday ornament. Small Norfolk Island Pines, less than 2 feet high, are perfect as centerpieces on tabletops and counters. Larger specimens, 3 to 4 feet tall, can be used as Christmas trees and decorated with all the trimmings, although care should be taken not to break the fragile branches by overloading them with too many heavy trinkets.

The A. heterophylla is a distinctive member of the ancient family Araucariaceae and one of the few conifers suitable for indoor growing. Surprisingly enough, this plant is not difficult at all to grow and will thrive indoors with consistently proper care. Success with this plant is mostly dependent on the quality of light that it receives and your watering practices, although temperature and humidity play an important role as well.

The length and quality of light are important for healthy growth. Place your Norfolk Island Pine in front of a very bright window where it can receive plenty of indirect light all day long. Although they don’t need direct sunlight, and should be protected against the summer’s scorching sun, morning rays from an eastern window, afternoon sunshine radiating from the west and curtain-filtered light coming in a few feet away from a southern pane are fine.

Although it has developed a reputation as being “low light tolerant”, nothing could be further from the truth. This plant will gradually decline if the light it receives is inadequate and may even protest by drooping miserably or by dropping some lower branches. Rotate the plant weekly to keep it from losing its symmetry as it reaches for the light.

One of the major contributors to the failure of this plant is poor watering habits. This plant is frequently injured or killed by being placed in a cool area and chronically over-watered, or by being consistently under-watered in a hot, dry area. And although I understand that one of the most complicated things to master with this plant is watering, there are a few simple facts to keep in mind.

To begin with, pot it up in a fast-draining, porous soil that will not retain too much water. Heavy soils take much too long to dry, eventually drowning the roots of a plant. During the spring and summer seasons, when your plant is growing actively, water regularly, keeping the soil moderately moist. During the fall and winter months, water sparingly, allowing the soil to dry out considerably but never completely.

Always bear in mind that temperature and light play a major role in moisture requirements. Potting soil takes much longer to dry in cooler, darker areas than in warmer, brighter ones. If you are growing this plant where temperatures are lower, which it prefers in the winter, or where the light is less intense, remember to be extra vigilant with the watering can; your plant will not be eager for a drink as often.

Opinions vary on temperature requirements, and you will find many different approaches and suggestions from source to source, including this one. Although the Norfolk Island Pine fares well during the spring and summer in a household where temperatures range between 18°C (6°F) and 22°C (72°F), this plant prefers a slightly cooler environment in the winter between 10°C (50°F) and 18°C (64°F) combined with a slight drop in temperature at night. In addition, never grow this plant below 5°C (41°F).

The desert-style humidity levels brought on by heating systems in the winter are especially hard on these plants that cannot tolerate dry, hot air. Lack of sufficient moisture can cause brown leaf tips, needle drop and lower branch loss. Raise the humidity by placing smaller plants on pebble trays or by adding a humidifier nearby for larger specimens. Circulate the air to prevent it from becoming stagnant, which will inevitably encourage pest infestations.

With proper care, this lovely holiday plant will grace your home for years. This holiday season, pick up a Norfolk Island Pine for your home and decorate it with some favourite ornaments, or wrap its pot in festive paper and present it as a gift to someone you care about.

1 comment:

  1. How to take plant care during holidays? Choose the pots; make sure there are holes in the bottom of your container to allow water to flow out freely, etc.

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