Araucaria heterophylla (synonym A. excelsa) is a member of the ancient and now disjointly distributed family Araucariaceae. As its vernacular name Norfolk Island pine implies, the tree is endemic to Norfolk Island, a small island in the Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and New Caledonia, about 1440km east of Sydney, Australia. The genus Araucaria occurs across the South Pacific, especially concentrated in New Caledonia (about 700 km due north of Norfolk Island) where 13 closely related and similar-appearing species are found. It is sometimes called a star pine, triangle tree or living Christmas tree, due to its symmetrical shape as a sapling, although it is not a true pine.
The trees grow to a height of 50-65 m, with straight vertical trunks and symmetrical branches, even in the face of incessant onshore winds that can contort most other species.
The young leaves are awl-shaped, 1-1.5 cm long, about 1 mm thick at the base on young trees, and incurved, 5-10 mm long and variably 2-4 mm broad on older trees. The thickest, scale-like leaves on coning branches are in the upper crown. The cones are squat globose, 10-12 cm long and 12-14 cm diameter, and take about 18 months to mature. They disintegrate at maturity to release the nut-like edible seeds.
The scientific name heterophylla ("different leaves") derives from the variation in the leaves between young and adult plants.
The first European known to have sighted Norfolk Island was Captain James Cook. In 1774 on his second voyage to the South Pacific in HMS Resolution, Cook noted the presence of large forests of tall, straight trees that appeared to be suitable for use as masts and yards for sailing ships. However, when the island was occupied in 1788 by convicts transported from Britain, it was found that Norfolk Island pine trees were not resilient enough for these uses and the industry was abandoned.
In the late 1950s a trial shipment of Norfolk pine logs was sent to plywood manufacturers in Sydney, Australia, with hopes to develop a timber export industry on Norfolk Island. Although the plywood companies reported excellent results, the industry was deemed not sustainable by the Norfolk Island Advisory Council, who decided to reserve timber production for local use. The timber is good for woodturning and together with the similar Cook pine is extensively used by Hawaii artisans.
The distinctive appearance of this tree, with its widely spaced branches and symmetrical, triangular outline, has made it a popular cultivated species, either as a single tree or in avenues. When the tree reaches maturity, the shape may become less symmetrical. Despite the endemic implication of the species name Norfolk Island pine, it is distributed extensively across coastal areas of the world in Mediterranean and humid-subtropical climate regions due to its exotic, pleasing appearance and fairly broad climatic adaptability.
As well as their eponymously native Norfolk Island, these conifers are planted abundantly as ornamental trees throughout coastal areas of Australia, Brazil, Chile, New Zealand, Peru, Portugal, Puerto Rico, South Africa, Spain, and coastal areas of the United States, such as southern California and the east and west coasts of Florida, as well as the northwesternmost coast of Mexico. Many of the "Norfolk Island pines" that grow in Hawaii, including their descendants used as potted ornamentals on the U.S. mainland, are actually Cook pines, the two species having been confused when introduced.
It grows well in deep sand, as long as it receives reliable water when young. This, and its tolerance of salt and wind, makes it ideal for coastal situations. Additionally, it is necessary for the species to be grown in oceanic coastal areas, because bodies of fresh water do not provide enough precipitation, moisture, consistent wind levels and saline air, which are all things the species requires.
Young trees are often grown as houseplants in areas where the winters are too cold for them to grow outside (they will not, for example, survive outdoors in most of North America or Europe), and are sometimes used as Christmas trees. It will not survive in areas subject to prolonged cold. However, there are a few specimens growing outdoors in the subtropical gardens of Tresco Abbey Gardens on the Isles of Scilly, in the United Kingdom. What is probably the most northerly specimen growing outdoors is a young tree on Valentia Island on the southwest coast of Ireland. The tendency for potted saplings to develop a barren appearance can be helped by growing them in clumps. In northern climates they can be left outdoors during summer to promote fuller growth.
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 centres during November. Many of these are sprayed with a light coating of green paint prior to sale to increase their eye appeal, although this may weaken or even kill the plant if it cannot photosynthesize adequately. Some areas in the southern USA deserts and subtropical Florida prohibit the planting of Norfolk Island Pine due to the fact they can be struck by lightning and fall .