Norfolk pine is a charming Christmas tree

branches of Norfolk Island pine trees
Norfolk Island Pine

Uh oh. You need a last-minute gift or a tiny tree to brighten a corner of your holiday home. Here comes a Norfolk pine to the rescue. Whew. That was close.

Looking like miniature Christmas trees, Norfolk pines pop up at garden centers and other stores over the holidays. Bedecked with bows and balls, they’re festive and cute as can be.

With a graceful, pyramidal shape and tiers of gently arched branches, they are loaded with appeal. They look delicate but are actually tough, long-lasting little trees.  

Technically a Norfolk Island pine, this pint-sized evergreen is native to – you guessed it – a place called Norfolk Island, just east of Australia. Captain James Cook discovered this tree on his second expedition to the South Pacific in 1774.

Norfolk pines are subtropical, hardy in zones 9 to 11. So they can’t handle our winters but are happy to summer outside and hang out with us indoors when the mercury drops. 

They are fairly carefree houseplants. Put them in a bright spot with some direct light. Water them when the top inch of soil feels dry. 

Norfolk pines love humidity, so mist them or group them with other plants. Fertilize them every week to two from spring to fall.

Transition them to outdoor living in the summer by putting them in the shade for a few days, then introducing them to bright light. Just remember to keep them watered and bring them in before the first frost hits.

Norfolk pines’ roots resent disturbance, so repot them only every few years. Once they get three feet tall, replace only the top few inches of soil instead of repotting the whole plant. 

They are slow growers. Norfolk pines generally top out at three to six feet indoors, but they take their sweet time getting there. In their native climes, they can top out at 200 feet.

Oh, and did I mention that a Norfolk pine is not a true pine? Technically Araucaria heterophylla, is part of a genus of 19 species of pine-like conifers. 

But let’s not split botanical hairs. 

The Norfolk pine is an appealing tree. For those with small spaces, it’s an ideal Christmas tree. For the rest of us, it is just a tiny charmer, a sweet little elf of a tree.    

Big or small, I hope your holiday tree is the center of a warm and blessed holiday season spent with family and friends.

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

Tips for using garden evergreens for holiday décor

Using evergreen cuttings to decorate the home offers an easy way to incorporate different textures, shapes, and aromas. Evergreens add a touch of simplicity, elegance, and nostalgia to holiday décor. They can be used easily on doors and entryways, as garland, or centerpieces. Cutting materials from your own landscape can provide a thrifty option.   

Here are a few tips for making evergreens a beautiful addition to your holiday décor. 

  1. If cutting from your own landscape, be cautious not to cut too much. Pruning in the early winter is generally not recommended unless it is to remove diseased or damaged material. It won’t hurt a well established plant to trim off a few branches, but try not to cut anything from newly installed plants. Check out this factsheet for additional information on pruning evergreens
  2. Caution! Several critters are overwintering on evergreens so once they get warm in your home, they will become active. These uninvited guests can cause surprise and panic from those not expecting them this time of year. If you find spiders, etc., you can put them outside.
  3. Keeping evergreens cool and hydrated will extend how long they stay fresh and beautiful. Place the ends of cut branches into water.  
  4. Often mixing different types of evergreens is a fun way to add unique smells, shapes, and texture to your home. 
  5. Shorter needled (hemlock/spruce) plants tend to lose their needles faster than longer needled species.
  6. Evergreen boughs are easy to stick into seasonal planters before the soil freezes. Be warned that if the branches freeze in the soil, they will be impossible to remove until it thaws. 
  7. Don’t forget to gather interesting seed pods, ornamental grasses, pine cones, etc. These add additional interest and natural beauty.

Some favorite cuttings include Junipers, Arborvitae, Holly, White Pine, Rhododendron, Boxwood, Lavender, and Rosemary.  If you have a live Christmas tree, be sure to repurpose those trimmings as well.

wreath made with grasses, seed pods, evergreens, and a bow
Here is a wreath base made from dried ornamental grass. Also, ornamental grass seed heads, Monarda seed heads, pine cones, and mixed evergreen cuttings are included. Photo: A. Bodkins
wreath made with Juniper and lamb's ear leaves
This wreath uses cuttings of native Eastern redcedar and leaves of lamb’s ear. Photo: C. Carignan
door swap made with evergreens, pinecones, and a bow
Door swag. Photo: A. Bodkins

As you gather your materials and get ready for crafting, remember that:

  1. Sharp pruners give a clean cut that will help increase the life of your branches and prevent premature needle drop. Guidance on sharpening pruning tools can be found here
  2. Use green floral wire to put cut branches together. It blends in well and is easy to work with. It is widely available at craft stores and low in cost. 
  3. Repurpose metal clothes hangers for inexpensive frames for swags/wreaths/garland. 
  4. Swags are often simpler and easier than a wreath to make and require less material, but provide a nice garnish for your entryway. Think of making a bouquet and then turn it upside down to get an easy door swag.
  5. If you’re placing cut evergreen stems into a container, use clean water and clean containers to prevent fungal and bacterial growth.
  6. Keep arrangements out of direct light and as far away as possible from the heat source.
  7. Misting cut evergreens can help extend their beauty.
  8. Using cut evergreens outside the home will help them last the entire season.
  9. Ribbon with wired edges is easier to work with for beginner bow makers. 

You can create many beautiful decorations by working with nature! Be creative and enjoy the gifts that your garden continues to give all year round. And it’s never too early to start thinking about garden plant additions for 2022! Think about items you could use in future holiday decorations or another season’s decor. 

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland, edited by Christa Carignan, Coordinator, Home & Garden Information Center, University of Maryland Extension. See more posts by Ashley and Christa.

Holly is entwined in holiday traditions

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.

This traditional British Christmas carol highlights the prominence of holly in our holiday celebrations.   But where did that tradition begin?

Because holly retains its green leaves all year long, many ancient cultures believed it had magical powers.  The ancient Druids were the first to give it supernatural significance, bringing in boughs to attract woodland spirits.  

Other cultures followed suit.  Holly was hung in homes to ward off evil spirits, worn by warriors for courage, eaten to purge impurities, drunk as tea for strength, and put under pillows to inspire prophetic dreams.

Romans hung holly in their temples and homes during Saturnalia, the midwinter festival honoring Saturn, god of agriculture.  Holly’s evergreen boughs celebrated the return of longer days and the hope for productive farms in the coming year.

The Roman naturalist Pliny added to holly’s lore.  He believed that a wild animal could be subdued by throwing a stick of holly at it and that holly trees planted near a home would protect its owners from both bad weather and witchcraft. 

Early churches adopted pagan rituals as their own.  Christmas Eve was designated as the time to decorate churches and it was forbidden to bring any greens into a home before then.   

Those bans on early decorating inspired the belief that bringing in holly too soon would cause misfortune.  I wonder what the ancients would think of modern day stores’ policies of putting up Christmas merchandise the day after Halloween?

Holly also spoke of love and relationships. Henry VIII wrote a love song, “Green groweth the holly” which extolled being ever true.  And one tradition dictated that the first one – husband or wife – to bring holly into the home at Christmas would rule the roost in the coming year. 

Grab that holly, girls!

Sex and the single holly gets complicated.  Most hollies are dioecious, having separate male and female trees.  You need both for the female to get berries. 

Oh, and those berries aren’t really berries.  They are drupes, a fleshy fruit with pit that contains a seed. There, you’ve had your botany word of the day.   

Ilex is the scientific name for the over 500 species of holly trees and shrubs. Most are evergreen, but a few are deciduous, losing their leaves in fall.  And their berries can be red, white, yellow or black. 

Holly’s berries feed a multitude of birds from mockingbirds and thrushes to robins and bluebirds.  They’re an important food source for other wildlife as well. 

But don’t try snacking on holly berries yourself.  They can make you ill or worse.  In medieval times physicians touted holly berries as a cure for colic.  The results were sometimes fatal.  Whether you display it for love, protection, good fortune or beauty, let holly grace your holiday home to honor traditions that have been handed down through the ages.  

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

Q&A: How do I care for a cyclamen plant I received as a gift?

cyclamen

Q: I received a cyclamen plant at a holiday party. Can you please tell me how to take care of it?

A: Cyclamen (Cylamen persicum) are popular houseplants for the winter holiday season. These plants originate from the Mediterranean region. In their native habitat, they bloom during the cool months and then go dormant during the hot, dry summer.

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Holiday Poinsettias: History & Care Tips

poinsettia
Poinsettias were introduced to the United States in the 1820’s from Mexico

Poinsettias are the quintessential holiday plant. They are considered by many to be an essential part of holiday decorating. With proper care, poinsettias can continue to thrive long after the holidays are past. Getting them to re-flower can be a tricky endeavor and requires commitment. There are two ways of thinking about this. There are those that consider the plants disposable after the holidays and those that are willing to nurture them for the long-term in hopes they will bloom again the following year.

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