You are probably expecting that this column will be my annual promotion of a live Christmas tree for the holiday season. In a sense it is, but it not about a 5 to 6 foot spruce or balsam that you have go out and drag home, set up, decorate and then recycle at the end of the season. If you are not up to all that, I suggest another type of live tree to grace your holidays – a Norfolk Island Pine.
This time of year you can find many of them in garden centers dressed up in bells and balls and bows that are relatively cheaper than anything you can find in a tree lot. You can add your own favorite ornaments and the best part is that they do not have to be tossed out after the holidays. They can stay inside as a house plant to serve in future years.
In spite of their name and their fernlike, evergreen appearance, the fact is that the Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) is not really a pine tree at all. It is a tropical conifer that is native to Norfolk Island, a small island in the South Pacific near New Zealand. It is not cold hardy in Minnesota, tolerating temperatures only above 35° F. In its native climate it can grow to over 200 feet tall, but here they grow in containers and are strictly houseplants for most of the year. Even in the house you should be careful to keep the tree out of drafts. Norfolk Island Pine, as a tropical plant, requires high humidity. This can be accomplished with a humidifier, a weekly misting or with the use of a pebble tray. (A pebble tray is a low container slightly larger than the plant’s pot filled with small rocks and water. The plant container is set on top of the pebbles but above the water level so that the water can provide humidity but is not wicking into the plant’s pot. This is a good method for any plants that need higher humidity than our dry Minnesota homes can provide in the winter.) The plant only needs to be watered when the top of the soil is dry.
An important part of the care of a Norfolk Island Pine is to be sure that it receives enough light. This can be tricky in the short days of a Minnesota winter, but a few hours of direct sunlight in a south facing window should be adequate for the winter when the plants are mostly dormant – but remember to keep them away from drafts. Norfolk Island Pine actively grows in the spring and summer and you can move them out doors once the temperatures have risen and all danger of frost has passed. Be sure to move them back indoors in the fall when temperatures start to fall. The plant can benefit from a water soluble plant fertilizer during this period of growth. (No need to fertilize in the winter when they are dormant.) It is normal for the lower branches of the Norfolk Island Pine to brown as it goes into dormancy, but if it should brown higher up that could indicate lack of humidity, over or under watering or too much direct sunlight. With a little bit of attention and care your ‘pine’ tree should be able to serve as your holiday tree for many years – growing a little bit every year.
Another plant that can add to your holiday décor is a holiday cacti– most often referred to as a Christmas cactus. One of the major complaints that people have about their Christmas cactus, Schulumbergera bridgesii, is that it fails to bloom at Christmas time. One of the reasons may be that your holiday cactus is not a Christmas cactus after all but another holiday cactus. There are also Thanksgiving cactus, Schulumbergera truncata, and Easter cactus, Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri. All are true cacti, native to rainforests that produce beautiful exotic flowers.
Their names make general reference to the time that they bloom. They are referred to as “short day” plants because in order to produce flower buds they need shorter days and cooler nights. Once the hours of daylight are reduced in the fall, the plants prefer daytime temperatures between 65° and 70° and night time temperatures between 55° and 65°. With temps of 55° at night the cacti should bloom in 5-6 weeks regardless of the day length. If night time temperatures are between 60° and 65°, the plant may need 12 hours of total darkness daily for 6 weeks to bloom. (Remember artificial light from lamps, and light fixtures count as light also, so you may want to place your plant in a room that does not have a lot of use in the evening and night.) If night time temperatures are consistently above 65°, the cacti may fail to bloom at all. Also note that Easter Cacti may take 8-12 weeks to bloom after they experience the shorter days and cooler temperatures. Once buds begin to form the plants are very sensitive to change which can lead to bud drop. If you have moved your plant to another room to stimulate bud development, be sure to move it back to where you want it as soon as buds appear.
Good luck with helping your cacti bloom for Christmas or growing your own holiday tree. And I wish everyone Joy and Peace this holiday season.