University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime News Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

The Norfolk Island Pine is a houseplant that requires minimal care, and because it grows slowly, will remain small and attractive for many years indoors.  Few pests bother it.

It is a houseplant you often find during the holidays, sometimes with several small plants in a pot, either decorated or that you can buy bare and decorate yourself. At my home we keep ours attractive year round, decorated with ornaments for various seasons and holidays.  Just make sure if you’re decorating one, to use light-weight ornaments on the rather soft branches.  If using lights, use LED ones so not to burn the foliage, as the heat may from incandescent lights.

The name is deceiving, as the Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) is not really a pine at all. It's a narrow-leaf evergreen plant with many short, needle-like, dark green leaves arranged along the stems. The side branches radiate from the central stem at a wide angle, giving the plant a layered look.

This coniferous (cone-bearing) evergreen is a native of Norfolk Island, which is located between New Caledonia and Australia in the South Pacific. It can be found growing on the cliffs on the northern shore, reaching a height of 200 feet and a diameter of nine or ten feet.  But don't worry, it takes many years for it to achieve those dimensions in its native habitat.  In most interiors, it may reach five to eight feet over a period of ten years or more.  The Norfolk Pine, as it is often called, was discovered in 1774 by Captain James Cook when he discovered this island.

For best growth and foliage quality, keep this plant in as much light as possible, preferably a spot within four feet of a large south-, east-, or west-facing window. The plant should receive about 200 foot candles of light a day. (A foot candle is the amount of light given off from a candle when measured from one foot away.   For comparison, a reading lamp is usually 40 to 60 foot candles.)

If you must keep your plants in a slightly darker location, compensate for the lower light levels by keeping the room light on for longer periods of time. Generally, 16 hours of light will be effective in keeping the plant in good condition for several years.  Turning plants weekly, especially if near bright windows, will help keep them growing straight and upright.

Norfolk Island pines will be at home in most temperature ranges suitable for people. Avoid extremes, both hot and cold. In the winter, a temperature of 50 to 55 degrees F at night is the minimum this plant can stand without injury. However, it will grow better if night temperatures are about ten degrees cooler than day temperatures.

As with many houseplants, this one prefers higher humidity than found in most homes (such as about 50%), especially during winter months. Humidity can be raised with a humidifier nearby, which will help you as well. Fertilize as you would other houseplants, according to product label directions, and when plants are putting on new growth.  These plants will survive with little, to almost no, fertilizer. Low fertility will keep them shorter, growing more slowly.

Soil around the roots should be moist, but never wet. It should be well drained, such as one with sand or peat moss, or both. Wet soil, as well as age or low light, may cause the lower limbs to drop off.   Soil moisture, pot size, pot type, plant size, average room temperature, room lighting, and humidity all will influence the amount and frequency of watering required.  As with most houseplants, if in doubt, don’t water. 

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