How about a ‘tropical pine’ for Christmas?


Now that Thanksgiving dinner is digested and the turkey soup is almost gone, it is time to consider the type of tree you want for Christmas. I prefer a living tree to a dead one. Unfortunately, the typical ones used throughout America and Europe are cut and shipped to Hawaii. The exception to that is the Norfolk Island pine, which is not a true pine after all. It is a close relative of pines, spruces, firs and redwoods, but does not have the pine smell that we associate with the family.

As far as I am concerned, it is one of the most interesting and beautiful trees on the market. This pine relative is a native to Norfolk Island in the South Pacific but our pine looks a little different than the ones you might see on Norfolk Island. The reason is that another species, Araucaria columnaris or Cook pine, was also introduced in the 19th century for ship masts. The two species have crossed to create a hybrid that probably should be called the Hawaiian pine or Araucaria excelsa/columnaris hybrid. For simplicity, we can just call it the Norfolk pine.

The Norfolk pine is popular in Hawaii as a cut tree because it stays fresh and green much longer than the traditional fir, spruce or pine. In Hawaii, some folks just don’t have the heart to cut the trees, so they are available as living Christmas trees grown in containers. Prices are quite reasonable, especially since the tree may be used year after year. The trees are attractive used as an interior container specimen or planted outdoors. In decorating the Norfolk pine, it is important to keep adornment simple, since the tree itself is so ornamental. Relatives like the bunya bunya pine with its 20-pound cones and the hoop pine don’t make very good Christmas trees, but are great as living gifts.

Other good trees are the Douglas fir, Mexican or Portuguese cypress, Monterey pine and spruce. Each of the common types of Christmas trees available has its own advantages that should be weighed.

The spruce usually has good green coloring and stiff branches. These strong limbs and twigs are important in holding a big collection of ornaments. If you plan a highly ornamented tree, spruce and fir should be given strong consideration.

However, imported trees have some disadvantages to consider. They tend to lose their needles quickly. And, one of the most common of the spruces, the white spruce, has a strong odor which is objectionable to some people. Firs, especially noble firs, have rich green coloring and generally hold needles much better than spruce trees.

Freshness is very important in selecting a cut tree. Don’t buy any tree that has browned needles. A discolored tree is beginning to dry out. Many people wait until the last minute to buy a Christmas tree so that it will have a good appearance on Christmas Day and through the remaining holidays. Actually, just the opposite may be true. Trees held at stores or on lots may not be kept under ideal conditions. It is better to buy from early shipments and place the tree in a bucket of water in the garage or carport where it is cool and shaded. It will keep better than if it sits on the lot and you will probably have a better selection if you buy early.

If you decide to cut your own tree, several Christmas tree farms are located on our island. Monterey pines and Portuguese or Mexican cypress are fresh, attractive and have a “piney” fragrance. Selecting locally grown trees also helps keep dollars in Hawaii.

Cut trees may be kept longer if a little soluble fertilizer is added to the water in which the tree stands. Don’t overdo it or the tree will dry out even faster than if you had used no fertilizer.

Several nurseries and garden centers on the Big Island are carrying Norfolk pines. Occasionally, you will find Monterey pines, Mexican or Italian cypress, spruce and others as living Christmas trees. Some miniatures already decorated. These may be planted in mauka gardens, above 4,000 feet elevation. Fir, spruce and some pines require cold weather found above 6,000 feet. Mexican cypress, Italian cypress and Monterey pine will do well and look best at 4,000 to 6,000 feet elevation. Norfolk pine, being tropical, is at home below 4,000 feet.

While on the subject of pines and other conifers, many may be worked into mauka gardening this season as well. But in general, locate them as specimen plantings in the front yard or as background and framework plantings around the home.

There are scores of conifers that you may consider in landscaping the homestead, but again, remember that they sometimes compete aesthetically with our tropical plant materials.

If you have plenty of room and have problems with wind, plant Australian pines or ironwoods. These fast growing trees soon form a windbreak. They have small cones, like their other coniferous relatives, that may be used in flower arrangements during the holidays.

There are several species of juniper. Some of the most important, including the red cedar, are the Chinese juniper, of compact pyramidal form, the Pfitzer juniper, a rather low, flat-growing type, and the Japanese juniper, one of the best prostrate forms.

Junipers are valuable conifers because of the great variety of types as well as the shades of green that are available. These shades of color permit the development of many effects impossible with other plant materials.

The Arborvitae are possibly the most familiar of the conifers because they have been favorites for ages. There are two groups: American and Oriental.

Conifers are the favorite of many because once well-established in cooler areas, where they are adapted, these plants thrive on minimal care. They are ideal for both busy young folks and retired gardeners. In the tropical lowlands, pines and other conifers must be used carefully in order to not look out of place, but with careful planning they can enhance the beauty of any formal, contemporary or Oriental garden.

This information is supplied by the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. For more, contact the nearest office.