Tree of the Month: Norfolk Island Pine

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Tree of the Month: Norfolk Island Pine
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By David Gress

Santa Barbara’s skyline is punctuated with the upper spires of many handsome Norfolk Island Pines - commonly known as “Star Pines” for their remarkably star-shaped top whorl of branches.

Perhaps the most recognized and iconic one in town, known as “Santa Barbara’s Tree of Light”, is on the corner of Carrillo and Chapala Streets. This healthy tree is over 120 years old and is nearly 120’ tall - the height of a 12-story building.  Every December for the last 90 years, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have decorated it with white lights and a shining star at the top, truly making it a “Star Pine”!

Though not actually a pine, the Norfolk Island Pine is a majestic conifer that can reach heights of 200 feet on its native Norfolk Island in the South Pacific Ocean.  Understandably, to accommodate its roots and eventual massive size, it needs to be given a large space in in the landscape. 

Its botanical name is Araucaria heterophylla.  Araucaria refers to the Araucanian Indians of central Chile, where other types of Araucaria species are native.  Heterophylla comes from the Greek for “different-leaved”, referring to the differences in its juvenile and adult leaf forms. 

This tree has two distinct types of leaves born on long twigs that point to the sky.  The juvenile leaves can be up to ½ inch long, are spirally arranged, extend away from the stem, and have sharp, pointed ends. The adult leaves are wider, flattened and scale-like, incurved and overlapping, resulting in mature twigs of up to 2’ in length that appears to have been carefully braided and are surprisingly sleek to the touch. 

It is notable for its very symmetrical form, with widely-spaced whorls of horizontal branches extending from a straight, single trunk.  It is monoecious (meaning that it carries male and female cones on the same tree) and bears 2” long, cylindrical, male pollen cones and 3-6” diameter, nearly-round, spiny female seed cones.

Despite being native to an island in the Pacific Ocean, this tree is now widely grown in coastal, sub-tropical, and Mediterranean climates around the world.  Being very adaptable to a broad range of climates and soil, it grows well in Santa Barbara.  It can survive on our normal rainfall, but looks better with irrigation in the dry season and during droughts.  Fortunately, it does not seem to be bothered with any serious disease or insect pests.  A star of a tree, by any name.

Norfolk Island Pines can be seen on the west side of the County Courthouse, in West Alameda Park, at the Santa Barbara train station, near Our Lady of Sorrows Church, at 815 Quinientos Street, in private yards in the Upper East side, and, of course at the corner of Carrillo and Chapala Streets.


Tree-of-the-Month articles are sponsored by Santa Barbara Beautiful, whose many missions include the increase of public awareness and appreciation of Santa Barbara’s many outstanding trees and, in a long-time partnership with the City Parks & Recreation Department, the funding and planting of trees along the City’s streets – a project which has resulted in the planting, to date, of more than 12,000 street trees.

[Editor's Note: This article was intended to appear earlier this month but was postponed due to Thomas Fire coverage]

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Flicka Dec 31, 2017 04:13 PM
Tree of the Month: Norfolk Island Pine

The year I lived in Hawaii we had one for a Christmas tree, plenty of space between branches to show off the decorations. I don't remember if they sold other types of Xmas trees.

RHS Dec 31, 2017 08:56 AM
Tree of the Month: Norfolk Island Pine

Some similar trees are regularly seen to lean precariously over homes in my neighborhood. Are they Northfolk Island or something much the same? Can we understand why them tend to do this? Someone said they lean toward the equator? True?

TripleA Dec 30, 2017 04:50 PM
Tree of the Month: Norfolk Island Pine

Speaking of well loved Santa Barbara street trees.... is anybody else's Jacaranda trees suddenly shedding chunks of bark? This started about two weeks ago. Hope it is nothing serious. Is the bottom photo a Norfolk? It looks so congested. Could it be one of those trees that grows tilting towards the Equator?

a-1524797178 Dec 31, 2017 08:30 PM
Tree of the Month: Norfolk Island Pine

My over 45 year old Jacaranda has shed bark for years. It looks bad, but had no bad effects. I watered it a little during drought. I have two gutter outlets piped into its root bed. I had an arborist trim it. I'm rather attached to it. :-) Have a knowledgeable person check it out and tend to it if you want it to do well.

TripleA Dec 30, 2017 04:30 PM
Tree of the Month: Norfolk Island Pine

Speaking of well loved Santa Barbara trees and drought... Are any other folks out there noticing the bark falling off their Jacaranda trees? Is that normal? This started happening about two weeks ago. The tree seems to be otherwise O.K. Is the bottom photo a Norfolk or something else? Maybe one of those that tilt towards the Equator.

tagdes Dec 31, 2017 11:05 AM
Tree of the Month: Norfolk Island Pine

Yes the one at the bottom is the main one the article is about, the one at Ralph's on Carrillo. Also these are not the ones that lean towards the equator. Those are Cook pine trees from New Caledonia. Norfolks are not true pines.

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