Local Tree Has Prehistoric Roots

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  • Post last modified:August 15, 2012
  • Reading time:5 mins read

Take a good look around Encinitas, Leucadia or Solana Beach. Standing tall on the coastal slopes leading up from the sea to where the hillside meets the sky, you will see a particularly interesting giant of a tree towering above the Torrey pines and the occasional Canary Island palm.

Ancient and endemic to Norfolk Island, a small island in the South Pacific located between Australia and New Zealand, the Norfolk pine is as unusual as they come. James Cook, an intrepid explorer, was the first European known to have sighted this South Sea island and thus the Norfolk Island pine, or Araucaria Heterophylla.

The explorer named the island after the Duchess of Norfolk in 1774 who was the wife of Edward Howard, the 9th Duke of Norfolk. Unfortunately she passed away during Cook’s journey in May of 1773 and never received the accolade.

During this time, sailing vessels were constantly in need of outfitting and rebuilding. At first, it was thought that this tall straight tree would be extremely suitable for masts and yards. Yet, in 1788 when the island was occupied by relocated convicts from Britain, it was found to be too weak for these uses and the proposed industry was abandoned.

I myself have been up in the top of many of these trees during removal situations. I can vouch for their brittle and soft wood firsthand. Typically this tree will sweep out over a structure and pose a threat to the dwellings down below. Being flexible to a point because of its soft wood, a climber cannot get close to the very top of the tree for fear of it breaking.

To remove or rope down the top section, I would typically use a pole pruner to reach above me and break off the weak lateral branches that are usually no more than an inch in diameter near the top of the tree. This would dramatically reduce the weight of the section being removed and make it much more weildy.

The wood of this crazy tree is soft, yellow white in composition and fairly good for wood turning being extensively used by Hawaiian craftsman. At one point in the 1950s, a trial shipment of Norfolk pine trunks was sent to Sydney, Australia, where plywood manufacturers peeled the logs and reported good results in creating plywood from it. Unfortunately for this industry, the Norfolk Island Advisory Council decided to reserve their local timber for use on the island only, determining that it wasn’t a sustainable resource. Can you believe it?

When you cut this tree into pieces, it really isn’t very suitable for firewood as it is extremely vascular. It also has the most viscous blood red sap I have ever seen, even when compared to the Eucalyptus robustus or iron bark eucalyptus. This sap is very slippery as well and difficult to remove as it dries. The star pine’s cousin, the monkey puzzle tree, also found in this area, has edible fruit and a sap that can be useful in the treatment of lacerations and cuts.

Here’s the unbelievable part. Paleoecology, or the study of plant and animal fossils, calls the star pine, the monkey puzzle and other trees from the Araucaria genus, relics. This means that they are literally living fossils and were once a dominant and numerous plant found throughout the world in great forests, still living today.

Fossil evidence shows that the star pine was prolific in the Cretaceous and Jurassic periods, hundreds of millions of years ago when the planet was quite warm and moist. It is now accepted by many scientists studying paleontology that the Sauropods, or herbivore dinosaurs living in these periods, evolved their long slender necks just like the giraffe to reach the cones and nutritious seeds produced by these 200-foot giants.

We have dinosaur food growing in our town!

When they are small and juvenile, they are so pretty that they almost appear plastic. In fact, a huge industry in Florida grows them as house plants especially for Christmas.

Just be careful where you plant them. The brittle trunk tops break off in high winds, leaving most mature specimens with double trunks that bifurcate around 30 to 40 feet.