It just doesn’t seem quite like the holidays without a brightly decorated tree sitting in the corner of the living room. Some people go with plastic trees that they can collapse into a box and others choose freshly cut pines, but gardeners in the know often choose Norfolk Island pines. Although not a true pine, Norfolk Island pines produce beautiful, scaly branches and leaves and adapts well to indoor life, making them true, living Christmas trees.
These trees require special care to look their best. High humidity, plenty of bright light and reasonable fertilization are on the menu, and any Norfolk Island pine trouble shooting should start by examining these key ingredients. Branch drop in Norfolk pines is common and happens for a couple of reasons.
Branches, needles or branch tips falling off Norfolk pine is a regular occurrence with these plants, even when conditions are ideal. As Norfolk Island pines grow, they may shed a few needles or even entire lower branches – this type of loss is natural and shouldn’t cause too much concern. However, if brown, dry needles or branches appear widespread on your tree, you definitely need to pay attention.
Widespread branch drop in Norfolk pines is usually caused by incorrect growing conditions. Low humidity, improper fertilization and improper watering are the typical culprits. Norfolk Island pines are tropical plants, originating in an environment where it rains frequently and the humidity stays high. You can replicate these conditions indoors, but it will take some effort on your part – Norfolk Island pines aren’t plants that will thrive on neglect.
Norfolk Island pine trouble shooting begins with correcting environmental issues like water, humidity and fertilizer.
When troubleshooting your Norfolk Island pine, start by examining your watering habits. Do you water frequently, but just a little bit at a time? Is your plant always standing in a pool of water in a saucer? Either of these situations can lead to problems.
Before watering a Norfolk Island pine, check the soil moisture with your finger. If it feels dry about one inch below the surface, you need to water. Water your plant well when you do, providing enough irrigation that water runs out the holes in the bottom of the pot. Never leave them soaking in water, as this can lead to root rot. Always empty saucers right away or water your plants outside or in the sink.
Even when watering is right, Norfolk dropping branches can be caused by improper humidity levels. Norfolk Island pines need approximately 50 percent relative humidity, which is difficult to achieve in many homes. Use a hygrometer to measure the humidity around your tree, as most homes will only be in the 15 to 20 percent range.
You can increase humidity with a humidifier if your plant is in a sunroom, or add a basin of water filled with pebbles below your plant. The addition of large pebbles or rocks moves your plant out of direct contact with the water, keeping root rot at bay. If this still doesn’t help, you may need to relocate the plant.
A much less common problem for Norfolks is a lack of fertilization. Older plants need to be fertilized once every three or four months, where new plants or those recently repotted can wait four to six months for fertilizer.
Repotting once every three or four years should be sufficient for most Norfolk Island pines.
Last Updated: December 8, 2020 References Approved
This article was co-authored by Tyler Radford. Tyler Radford is a Plant Specialist at Hollie’s Farm & Garden in Tampa, Florida. With over nine years of experience, Tyler specializes in gardening, planting, mulching, and potting. Hollie’s Farm & Garden is a full-service landscape nursery offering landscape supplies including trees, shrubs, mulch, and flagstone.
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The Norfolk Island pine is a type of coniferous tree that's native to Norfolk Island, which is located between Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific Ocean. Although it's not a true pine tree, the Norfolk Island pine does look like one, and is often used as a Christmas tree. In the wild, these trees can grow to 200 feet (61 m). Norfolk Island pines also make great houseplants, and will grow to a height of 5 to 8 feet (1.5 to 2.4 m) indoors. These trees are very drought resistant and don't need a lot of water to thrive.  X Expert Source
Plant Specialist Expert Interview. 6 October 2020. The secret to caring for this type of tree is providing lots of humidity and indirect sunlight, and keeping the right temperature range.
If a slow-growing Norfolk Island pine begins to wilt, check its roots. If the roots are small, soft and decaying and are brown to black, the tree may be suffering from root rot, or water mold, caused by numerous species of pythium fungi. Pythium fungi thrive in soggy, poorly drained soil. Maintain even soil moisture and improve soil drainage by adding amendments, such as shredded pine bark.
Norfolk Island, the trees natural habitat, is located halfway between Australia and New Zealand. The ideal growing temperature is 60 to 70 degrees during the day and slightly cooler at night. While the tree thrives at 50 percent relative humidity, if you grow one indoors, that indoor humidity number can drop to 15 percent during the winter. Inadequate humidity can cause needles to turn brown. As they get older, a few lower needles of Norfolk Island pines typically turn brown and drop, but browning needles may also be caused by a tree not getting enough light. If the needles are browning and the trunk of a Norfolk Island pine is straight but the branches droop, make sure it gets at least two hours a day of direct sunlight. Keep in a bright, evenly lit area indoors. Rotate the plant each week so that all sides get light. Grow in full sun outdoors.
Being tropical plants, Norfolk Island pines like bright sunlight and high humidity. Place your tree in front of a south-facing window if possible, or at least in a location that receives bright indirect light. Turning it every week or so will keep it growing full and straight.
Although Norfolk Island pines tolerate average household humidity levels, they will do best with more humid conditions. To provide this, surround your tree with other houseplants or place a saucer of pebbles and water under the tree, ensuring that the plant does not sit directly in the water. A weekly misting will also do the trick. Additionally, avoid putting the tree in a place where it might feel drafts from doors, windows, and air vents.
As with most houseplants, water your Norfolk Island pine as soon as the top inch of soil feels dry. Fertilizing isn’t imperative, but you can feed the tree once a year or as often as every two weeks, if you want it to grow faster, with a general-purpose houseplant fertilizer. Regardless, do not feed it during the winter-spring seasons: summer is best.
Should you prune your Norfolk Island pine? No. Cutting it back will make the tree look distorted or even encourage it to become shrubby. As the tree matures, a few lower branches will naturally die, and these can be removed — they’ll usually fall off of their own accord, but you can also snip them off with pruners. If, however, it begins dropping numerous branches, make sure that it is receiving proper care (see the FAQs below for more details).
But what if the tree gets too tall for the space it’s in? Trimming the top off of a Norfolk Island pine will likely not harm it, so if it threatens to touch the ceiling, you can cut off the very top of the tree, removing just the “star cluster” of new growth or as much as desired down to just above a whorl of branches. This will prevent it from growing any taller, but it won’t be as pretty.
Norfolk Island pine trees only need to be repotted about once every two to three years.
Keep in mind that putting it in a larger pot will encourage the tree to grow bigger, so if you want to slow its growth, repot into a similar-sized container with fresh soil. For best results, choose a well-draining potting soil, ideally one containing sand and coconut coir , and a container with drainage holes.
While you can propagate a Norfolk Island pine from cuttings, it’s difficult to do. Instead, many experts recommend propagating these trees from seed. First, obtain the freshest Norfolk Island pine seeds possible, as they can lose their viability within a matter of months.
Fill small pots with sterile potting soil or soilless growing medium and place the seeds on the surface of the soil. Planting multiple seeds in the same pot will result in a fuller appearance: my “tree” is actually made up of four trunks.
Place the pots in a bright window and keep them at 70 to 80 F, using a heat mat if necessary. Use a plant mister to keep the soil moist but never soggy. In 10 to 21 days, you should begin to see sprouts appear! At this point, average household temperatures should suffice (60 to 90 F), and you can begin watering normally once the young saplings are established.
If you have decided to trim the top off anyway (see the “pruning” section above), you can try rooting the cutting. It has to be the growing top, as a branch will not grow into a tree but rather continue growing as a branch, though it will root. Remove the needles from the bottom inch of the cutting, then insert the cutting into a clean, well-draining growing medium. If desired, you can apply a rooting hormone ( this is the one I use ) to improve your chances of success before planting the cutting.
Cover the pot with a clear plastic bag to form a humidity tent, or place it in a terrarium or greenhouse. Check on it daily and moisten the soil as needed. Because Norfolk pines grow slowly, this process takes some patience, but if all goes well, you should eventually see signs of new growth.
Brown or yellow needles often indicate insufficient humidity, so try surrounding the tree with other houseplants, placing a tray of pebbles and water underneath, misting the branches weekly, or putting a dehumidifier in the room.
If humidity doesn’t seem to be the problem, look for other potential stressors, such as too direct or too little sunlight, over- or underwatering, or a draft. See the “Care” section above for ideal conditions.
Norfolk Island pines may drop a few lower branches as they grow, but if the branch dropping seems excessive, it may be a sign of stress. Make sure that the tree receives proper levels of humidity and soil moisture. Water thoroughly as soon as the top inch of soil feels dry, but never let the plant sit in water or become soggy.
Ingesting the needles of a Norfolk Island pine can cause severe stomach irritation for both humans and pets, so it’s best to keep it out of reach of curious nibblers.
That depends. Where do you live? Norfolk Island pine trees don’t tolerate freezing temperatures, so if your winters dip below 35 F, keep it inside. In the U.S., Orlando marks the northern range for growing Norfolk pines outdoors. In USDA hardiness zones 9 and below, you can place the potted tree outside during the summer. In fact, they will thrive in warm, humid summer conditions as long as they aren’t thrust out into direct afternoon sunlight: this will cause sunburn.
Norfolk Island pine trees can be a bit finicky about moisture, but as long as you provide sufficient humidity and soil moisture, they will reward you with beautiful, lush branches. Decorate them with lightweight ornaments for Christmas, or simply enjoy their cheery, comforting presence year-round.
Want more Christmas plants? You’ll love a poinsettia or two around the living room, and a Christmas cactus is a great addition to your houseplant collection.
Norfolk Island pine needs bright light. Place it near the sunniest windows in your house. If the light isn't bright enough, the tree will drop its lower branches and not replace them, and you will have one homely looking houseplant.
The plant also likes humid air, as most tropical plants do. People don't, however, so indoor air is typically bone dry. Help out your Norfolk Island pine by misting the foliage a couple of times a day or placing it atop a pebble-lined saucer filled with water. Try to keep it away from AC and heating vents.
Make sure the soil is well-drained. Let the top surface go dry between thorough waterings, but never let the soil dry completely or you'll have a dead tree. Fertilize monthly from spring to early fall with a liquid houseplant fertilizer.
Norfolk Island Pine is hardy in USDA zones 10-11, but unfortunately not here in Tidewater. It may be “mature,” but nevertheless, it is a tropical plant. To be on the safe side, you should bring it inside whenever temperatures drop below 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit. Exposure to temperatures lower and this can result in physiological damage, depending on the severity and time of exposure to the cold. To be sure, we will still have some nice fall weather before you have to go all-indoors with it. On days and nights when the temperatures are above this range, it will surely enjoy the patio.
Q. I’ve read about using coffee grounds to enhance gardening. Now, I’ve decided to start saving them. How can I use them effectively? — Ann House, Virginia Beach
A. Coffee grounds can be best used in a couple of ways. If you don’t have a compost pile, they can be added directly to your beds. Rake back your mulch, spread lightly over the soil surface and gently work-in. Next, rake back the mulch. If you have an area you are just beginning to use, they can be cultivated-in more deeply. Be advised that they are somewhat hydrophobic. Like peat moss, once they dry out, they can be difficult to re-wet, so avoid letting this happen.
If you do keep a compost pile, they are a welcome addition. At 2%, they are a good source of nitrogen to keep your compost decomposition going. A little bit, but not too much. The ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio for the compost pile is 25 to 30 parts carbon to 1 part of nitrogen by weight. Coffee grinds have a 20-1 C: N ratio, helping balance the other compost materials on the higher carbon to nitrogen side. Grounds should be layered into your compost pile just as your leaves, grass clippings and other ingredients. Contrary to popular opinion, coffee grounds, while slightly acidic in pH, will not appreciably impact your soil pH. While you are at it, your coffee filters can be layered in as well, but are best shredded for fastest decomposition. Every little bit helps.