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How about a ‘tropical pine’ for Christmas?

  • Photo courtesy of VOLTAIRE MOISE Araucaria pines in Hawaii are often hybrids between the Cook pine and the Norfolk pine. When grown in pots, they make ideal living Christmas trees that can later be planted in the forest, such as these at the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary.

Now that our Thanksgiving turkey is digested and there has been a bit of snow on Maunakea, it is time to look forward to Christmas.

Some folks are a bit slow in getting their Christmas trees up, but don’t delay since trees that are shipped in soon are best. If you wait, the cut mainland trees will dry out and can become fire hazards.

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Personally, I like living Christmas trees, and my favorites are in the Araucaria group. There are more than a dozen species.

These include the Norfolk pine, monkey puzzle pine, bunya bunya, hoop pine, Cook pine and several species from New Caledonia that are seldom seen outside this group of islands. Araucarias are not true pines but are a 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 species.

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 and Molokai, thus attracting much needed moisture. The old saying “Rain follows the forest and desert follows man” 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.

So what we call the Norfolk pine in Hawaii should be called the tropical Hawaiian pine since it is a hybrid between the Norfolk and Cook 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.

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 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 pines at the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary in Kaloko Mauka. Those planted in the early 1980s are now taller 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 its advantages that should be weighed. However, if you wait 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 kept 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 will probably 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 locally-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 had 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.

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