Tropical Gardening: Buy a ‘tropical pine’ for Christmas to support island farmers

  • Photo courtesy of VOLTAIRE MOISE Euphorbia leucocephala, or Snows of Kilimanjaro, adds to the Christmas holidays along with real snow on Maunakea, poinsettias and Christmas trees in tropical Hawaii.

Christmas is almost here and we are seeing snow on Maunakea. Poinsettias are in full bloom as well as the related shrub, “Snows of Kilimanjaro,” or Euphorbia leucocephala. Folks are sending cards, buying and mailing gifts, but it seems like most of us are a bit slow in getting our mainland Christmas trees up this year.

Don’t delay any longer since trees that are shipped in early are best.


If you wait, the cut mainland trees will dry out and can become fire hazards. Millions of dollars are spent each year to buy Christmas trees grown in Washington and Oregon, but wouldn’t it be a boon to island farmers if we could buy trees grown in Hawaii?

Here is some really good news.

In a few years, we might actually have locally grown Douglas fir and other traditional mainland tree varieties available from island farms at high elevations. According to J.B. Friday, UH Extension forester, researchers with the Hawaii Forest Industry Association are testing the adaptability of these cold climate species on the Big Island.

This could be a whole new farm enterprise for us since thousands of trees are imported every year.

However, if you want to support island farmers now, you might consider a living Christmas tree.

Favorites are in the Araucaria group. There are more than a dozen species. These include the Norfolk pine, monkey puzzle pine, bunya pine, hoop pine, Cook pine and several species from New Caledonia that are seldom seen outside their native islands.

Araucarias are not true pines at all. They are primitive conifers left over from hundreds of millions of years ago. Theory has it that they were part of the tropical forests before Australia separated from New Caledonia and perhaps even South America.

The common Araucaria we have in Hawaii is likely a hybrid between the Norfolk and Cook pines, since trees here often have characteristics of both.

The latter is from the Isle of Pines near New Caledonia and occurred in great abundance there. Although they were heavily harvested for their excellent wood, there is a big reforestation project going on since the trees help increase precipitation and improve watersheds. It would be ideal to reforest abandoned agricultural areas such as the pineapple fields of Lanai, thus attracting much needed moisture. There is an old saying: “Rain follows the forest and desert follows man.” This certainly seems true when we see vast areas of our islands that once were forest and now are arid grasslands.

Perhaps our tropical pines could help reverse the trend. Imagine Lanai, previously known as the Pineapple Island, becoming green and moist as Hawaii’s Isle of Tropical Pines.

This tree is popular in Hawaii as a cut tree because it stays fresh and green much longer than the traditional fir, spruce or pine.

Many folks here 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 can 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. Through the years, we have planted hundreds of tropical Hawaiian Araucarias at the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary in Kaloko Mauka. Those planted in the early 1980s are now more than 50 feet high, so give the trees plenty of room if you decide to plant them in your garden. If you don’t have space in your garden, you can plant it at the sanctuary. Call 325-6440 for details.

Other cut trees on the market this year are the firs, Mexican or Portuguese cypress, Monterey pine and spruce. Each of the common types of Christmas trees available has advantages that should be weighed. However, if you waited too long, remember the trees remaining might be a bit over the hill since they were probably cut quite some time ago. Exceptions are the trees grown at island tree farms.

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 that is objectionable to some people. Firs, especially the noble firs, have rich green coloring and they 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 it will have a good appearance on Christmas Day and through the remaining holidays.

Actually, just the opposite might be true.

Trees at stores or on lots might not be kept under ideal cool conditions. It is better to buy from early shipments and place the tree in a bucket of water in the garage or storeroom. It will keep better than on the lot, and you probably will have a better selection if you buy early.

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

Cut trees can 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 used no fertilizer.

Several nurseries and garden centers on the Big Island are carrying Norfolk pine, Monterey pine, Mexican cypress, spruce and others as living Christmas trees. Some are miniatures already decorated.

These can be planted in the garden in mauka areas. Fir, spruce and some pines require cold weather found above 6,000 feet. Mexican cypress and Monterey pine will do well and look best at 3,000- to 6,000-foot elevation.


Araucarias, being mostly tropical, grow well below 4,000 feet. The exceptions would be with species such as the monkey puzzle pine that come from cold climates of South America. This tree from Chile has been grown as far north as British Columbia along the west coast.

Araucarias, however, do not have a pine scent, so if you miss the piney fragrance, check out stores and garden shops that sell mainland pines. They often will have cut branches available at little cost to incorporate into your Christmas scene.

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