Norfolk Pine: How to Save a Tree During the Holidays

Close up of author’s “Tree of Life”

 

As a young child I remember going to tree farms to choose the beloved Christmas tree of the year. The fragrant scent of balsam was the last gift the annual tree presented us with as her needles dried, turned brown and dropped. I always remember feeling so sad that the tree was left to die after lighting up the house with twinkling lights.

 

When I married and moved to Monhegan Island, ten miles off the cost of Maine, I cut down my own Christmas tree in the forest. Since we had no electricity the tree was festooned with candles and homemade ornaments – I can still recall how beautiful that first tree was and after Christmas I couldn’t bare to throw it out so I made all kinds of bird treats and placed them on the tree outdoors, a tradition I continued until the day came when I couldn’t stand to cut one more tree to the ground…

 

At this point the first live tree, a Norfolk Pine, came to live with us. With a profound sense of relief flooding me, my new friend also became our Christmas tree, a tree that lived on long after the season ended. I didn’t miss the scent of balsam because I continued to go into the forest every year to tip boughs for at least three wreaths – one for outdoors, the other two to use in the house (proper tipping actually encourages new growth). I was astonished and delighted by the tree’s beautiful weeping branches and straight trunk, although I was a bit astounded at how fast she grew. I loved that tree and was also so grateful because she had solved the problem of tree slaughter for me.

 

When I first began celebrating the winter solstice after my children were in late adolescence, the tree complied quite happily. I still had my grandmother’s miniature white lights that always stayed cool when lit, so every year she continued to light up the night… I now understood because of my academic study of world mythology, that for me, this indoor tree embodied so much more than the season’s turning – She was the “Tree of Life.” No wonder I had such difficulty chopping down and throwing out trees, year after year.

 

When I moved from the coast to the western mountains of Maine that tree went with me. She was getting too big for me to lift, and I had to get help re –potting her. In the summer she loved being outdoors although the first year I gave her a sunburn by accident. I discovered she preferred the north side of the house.

 

Divorced, with absentee adult children I continued to drape her with lights for each winter solstice until the year my grandmothers lights stopped working. After that I stopped lighting my tree because I was afraid the new hot lights would stress and burn her needles. Instead I placed small animals and birds among her branches and hung crystals from her boughs.

 

Most exciting to me this year is that my new Norfolk Pine (who is actually a small forest of trees given to me by friend Iren) has chosen to sprout new growth in the fall instead of during the spring, possibly because I re-potted her in June, or because this tree “knows” that this is the season I celebrate all trees. Maybe both. The edges of her fronds are deep emerald green and bushy green sprouts top each tree. My bond with her/them runs deep, like a great underground river of song. I mist her every morning, touch her fronds and talk to her. With long starry nights upon us I have ringed her base with lights as I celebrate the joy of loving all trees even as the trees outdoors slip into their winter sleep…

 

With the holiday season approaching I am asking people who do buy live trees for their houses in the U.S. to consider a Norfolk Pine as their tree of choice. Large numbers of Norfolk Island Pines are produced in south Florida for the houseplant industry. The bulk of these are shipped to grocery stores, discount retailers and garden centers during November so these trees can be found everywhere. One caveat: Many are sprayed with a light coating of green paint or sliver/ gold glue prior to sale. Beware of spraying. This process will weaken and eventually kill the tree because it cannot photosynthesize. Also be aware of the fact that even a tabletop tree will eventually need more and more space. The one I have now is about as tall as I am and it occupies a pot that sits on the floor.

Here are a few tips from a plant woman who has been growing these trees for 40 some years:

Norfolk Pines need protection from direct sunlight especially in the southern states. They love a room full of indirect light, skylights etc. but will not tolerate direct sun unless it’s in the winter (or unless you are willing to expose the tree very gradually to sunlight over a period of weeks). Feed your tree a good fertilizer every three months except during November, December, and January, the months trees need to rest. Be careful with watering. Pay attention to your tree! Don’t let your pine get too dry. Don’t leave standing water in the pot that lasts more than a few hours. An over watered tree will slowly lose precious roots to rot. At first you will note that the tree has little or no new growth during the spring months, and finally one day (this can take years) you will find it has fallen out of its pot quite rootless. In the winter especially, mist your tree daily; the tree will appreciate the moisture. I re pot only when the tree’s roots are sticking out of the bottom of the container, preferably in the fall. Once a tree gets too large re- pot in the same sized pot after pulling away some roots to make space for new soil. If you follow these simple steps you will have a tree purifying the air in your house, and a delightful Christmas/Solstice/ Tree of Life to accompany you through those long winter nights for years to come.

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