Araucaria heterophylla (synonym A. excelsa) is a distinctive conifer, a member of the ancient and now disjointly distributed family Araucariaceae. As its vernacular name Norfolk Island Pine implies, the tree is endemic to Norfolk Island, a small island in the Pacific Ocean between Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia. The genus Araucaria occurs across the South Pacific, especially concentrated in New Caledonia (about 700 km due north of Norfolk Island) where 13 closely related and similar-appearing species are found. It is sometimes called a 'star pine', due to its symmetrical shape as a sapling, although it is not a true pine.
The leaves are awl-shaped, 1-1.5 cm long, about 1 mm thick at the base on young trees, and incurved, 5-10 mm long and variably 2-4 mm broad on older trees. The thickest, scale-like leaves on coning branches are in the upper crown. The cones are squat globose, 10-12 cm long and 12-14 cm diameter, and take about 18 months to mature. They disintegrate at maturity to release the nut-like edible seeds.
The scientific name heterophylla ("different leaves") derives from the variation in the leaves between young and adult plants.
In the late 1950's a trial shipment of Norfolk Pine logs was sent to Sydney plywood manufacturers in the hope of developing a timber export industry for the Island. Although the plywood companies reported excellent results the industry was deemed not sustainable by the Norfolk Island Advisory Council who decided to reserve local timber production for use on the Island. The timber is good for woodturning, and is extensively used by Hawaiian craftspeople. British explorer James Cook unsuccessfully used these trees as ship masts when exploring Norfolk Island .
It grows well in deep sand, as long as it receives reliable water when young. This, and its tolerance of salt and wind, makes it ideal for coastal situations.
Young trees are often grown as houseplants in areas where the winters are too cold for them to grow outside (they will not, for example, survive outdoors in most of the United States or Europe, but are sometimes used as Christmas trees there, as elsewhere). It will not survive in areas subject to prolonged cold. Large numbers of Norfolk Island Pines are produced in South Florida for the houseplant industry. The bulk of these are shipped to grocery stores, discount retailers and garden centers during November. Many of these are sprayed with a light coating of green paint prior to sale to increase their eye appeal.
Even in Florida, these trees are subject to frost damage and produce multiple stems with weakly attached trunks - in the 2004 hurricane season, many of these trees failed under the 160 km/h winds. As a result some coastal communities (e.g. Vero Beach) prohibit their use as a tree in local landscape plan approvals because of the danger posed by falling trunks.
Some people may experience a strong allergic reaction if they touch the leaves.