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Entrenched Nursery Identification Errors: Araucaria heterophylla

By Geoff Stein (palmbobDecember 3, 2013
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Sometimes I see errors in identification, not just here, but all over the place on the web, in botanical gardens, nurseries, private gardens (including my garden) etc. Misidentified plants are just part of life, and I have been guiltier than many in making these errors. But I have also done my part in trying to correct some of these errors, or at least alerting others to their mistakes (as they often do for me) as tactfully as possible. But some errors are so entrenched in our gardening culture that efforts made to correct these errors often either go unnoticed or are completely ignored as ravings from a madman (that would be me, for example). This article and perhaps a few more are focused on such an error as an example of what I mean.

Gardening pictureThere are a number of plants that are sold relatively commonly at nurseries that are simply NOT the plants they say they are. Why do I care? Because in almost every case, I have been duped, too, and assumed the nurseries knew what they were advertising and selling. Thank goodness to Davesgarden and the massive worldly exposure my plant blunders get, or else I might never have learned what a sucker I am. But now that I know better, for some reason I feel it is my duty to try, as hopeless as it may be, to correct these errors in plant identification so you, the reader and potential plant buyer/collector, will not make the same mistakes I made.

Why should you care? Well, maybe it really doesn't matter to you what something really is. If you like it and it grows well for you, perhaps it doesn't. I need to know what something is or I am just never quite as happy about it. But in this particular case, the plant in question is different enough from what is actually being sold to most growers that getting the plant wrong could end up proving to me more than just a silly error in naming, but a landscape blunder as well. Some say buyer beware, and there is a lot to that. And in this instance, the error in identification is so widespread that it almost would be easier to officially rename each of these plants rather than re-educating the tens of thousands of people who already have things all wrong. But since officially renaming a plant for convenience is never going to happen, I am going to try to clear things up a bit for the few of you that might actually care or for whom getting things mixed up could save you some time in having to possibly dig up or return something.

 K luciae K luciae varieg

Kalanchoe luciae (both 'regular' and variegated above) are often misidentified as Kalanchoe thyrsiflora, a much rarer but somewhat similar looking plant (see below) 

 K thyrsiflora Kalanchoe thyrisflora

 Aeonium NOT urbicum Aeonium urbicum

Aeonium urbicum is another very common incorrect name given typically to large, low-growing, suckering Aeoniums (like the ones in left photo in a botanical garden), while, in fact, Aeonium urbicum is a tall, solitary species (right photo). 

 Aloe deltoideodonta fallax Aloe ibitiensis, the real thing

Another very common nursery error is selling the plant on the left as Aloe ibitiensis, while it is actually Aloe deltoidedonta var. fallax, and the plant to the right is the real Aloe ibitiensis (often incrrectly identified as Aloe itremensis, which is no longer a valid name.) 

I don't know the history of these two species of Araucaria in question that well, but Captain Cook, the famous explorer himself discovered both these trees and is responsible in part for getting them into world wide cultivation. And that may be where the problem first began. Somewhere along the line, between his day and some time later, the plant everyone assumed to be the Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) was really the Cook Pine (Araucaria columnaris). The names are pretty easy to understand- one is from the Norfolk Islands and the other closely related species is a native to New Caledonia. The Norfolk Islands are off the east coast of Australia, about half way between New Caledonia and New Zealand. I was informed (incorrectly) that the Cook Pines were from the Cook Islands, but this was not the case.  Perhaps that is why they are not colled 'Cook Island Pines'.  The Cook Islands are way out in the Pacific Ocean pretty much in the middle of nowhere and there are no Araucaria out there. New Caledonia is home to many species of Araucaria, but for the most part, the only one known in cultivation is the Cook Pine (named after Cook himself).  As both these pines are both from relatively remote areas of the world, few know what the plants really look like in nature. Almost all those that profess to know these plants learned from what was already in cultivation, and sometimes already wrong. That sort of wrong is one of the hardest wrongs to make right. It is historically entrenched in our nursery trade so deeply that one has a difficult time going back far enough to find where the first mistake was made. And resistance to change is stubbornly strong.

If you look at these two trees growing side by side, it is pretty hard to see how they could be confused. But they do have a lot of similarities that they share with a lot of the other members of their genus, Araucaria. The only thing is most of those other species are not common in cultivation so misidentification is not an issue. And the other two (Araucaria bidwillii (the Bunya Bunya Tree) and Araucaria araucana (the Monkey Puzzle Tree)) that are more common in cultivation look quite different so no likely identification problems there... not to mention the latter has a very different cultivational picture (likes it cold). One of the problems with telling Norfolk Island Pines from Cook Pines is they also look quite a bit different (especially the Cook Pines) depending upon where they are grown- if along the coast, or in the hotter inland areas, or in the tropics... they look quite a bit different in each situation, enough so they can look like completely different species. So if a tree is that variable, then it is no wonder its true identification is at risk.

 Araucaria angustifolia Araucaria aracana 

Three other species of Araucaria seen growing along the west coast :Araucaria angustifolia (left) in Los Angeles,  and Araucaria aracana (aka Monkey Puzzle Tree, right) in Oregon

Araucaria bidwillii   Araucaria cunninhamii

Two more species of Araucaria in California:  Araucaria bidwillii (Bunya Bunya Tree, left photo) and Araucaria cunninghamii (right photo) 

 Araucaria laubenfelsii   Araucaria montana

Two more rarely grown plants, Araucaria laubenfelsii (left) and Araucaria montana (right), in Huntington Botanical Gardens, California 

I got my first 'Norfolk Island Pine' as an indoor Christmas Tree (probably the most common way people end up with a Cook Pine) some 10 years ago, and proceeded, like many, to profess I knew what Norfolk Island Pines looked like, not only as juveniles like the plant in my living room, but from all the mature trees growing in the neighborhood (my neighborhood in Los Angeles seemed to be particularly fond of Araucarias as they were on nearly every block). I professed to the point of uploading my photos of these trees on Davesgarden and even writing an article about the use of Norfolk Island Pines as indoor Christmas trees (it was a seasonally timed article so I did not do a ton of research on it due to the time constraints).  One of the most pervasive 'myths' is the massive use of Norfolk Island Pines as Christmas trees throughout the US and I have read numerous short blurb-like articles on the internet discussing this species as being so commonly used as indoor Christmas trees... For at least a year after I published my little article basically saying the same thing, no one had anything negative or correctional to say about my glaring error. Because everyone else thought the same as I did!  All these Christmas trees sold to millions of Americans turn out to be Cook Pines, not Norfolk Island Pines.  

 Cook pine xmas tree   Cook pine xmas closer

This small tree sold as an indoor Christmas tree is just one of many sold in the large, outlet nursery/ home improvement store I visited recently.  They are labeled as Norfolk Island Pines (label in right photo), but 99%, ot possibly 100% of these are actually Cook Pines. 

Thankfully someone who actually knew better finally chimed in on some of my plant photos to tell me what an idiot I was and that all my photographs were of Cook Pines, not Norfolk Island Pines. Of course I knew better than this obviously crazy person did... after all, how could so many other plant people be wrong about something so basic? Well, after some 'real' research, and much to my dismay, I discovered I was indeed wrong, as was everyone else, as hard as it was to believe and accept. After getting over my embarrassment (hard to believe, after being told I am wrong 1000 times by now I still get embarrassed), I eventually tried to clear up the mess on Davesgarden. I moved all my incorrect photos, and reworked my article and uploaded as many correct photos of Norfolk Island Pines as I could. But this goof up is SO entrenched in the plant world that even the Davesgarden administration was (and still is) reluctant to touch other people's incorrect photos, at least when in comes to this mix up. When it comes to palms and a few other plants I know well, they listen to me and move things about... but not this time. It may take a lot more people complaining and (I hope) experts to chime in to get this monumental move to actually happen.

There are LOTs of photographs of Norfolk Island Pines on the internet. I think it is no exaggeration to say that almost 50% of those photos are wrong (so many are of Cook Pines instead). There are indeed some correct ones, and even better, a few photos of the two species side by side. The photos of immature plants are very likely mostly wrong, too, but since the two species look alike as juveniles, it will be harder to make a case to correct them as well. Since the Norfolk Island Pine is actually a somewhat rare species in cultivation, it is not all that easy to demonstrate the differences to all, other than showing photographs of the few I have seen, and point out the few other correct ones on the internet. Young plants (less than 3'-4' high) of each species are virtually identical, so that doesn't help, either, as it is at this size that most plants are purchased around the world. And of course it doesn't help that some very old and large Araucarias labeled as Araucaria heterophylla don't really fit either Araucaria heterophylla or Araucaria columnaris... are these another species of Araucaria, or just my ignorance in not having seen enough really old specimens? Yes there are many photos I am not 100% sure either way, so I can sure understand others might be confused.

 These are just some of the internet sites with incorrectly identified photos of Norfolk Island Pines (most Cook Pines).

 www.floridata.com/ref/a/arau_het.cfm  ; www.thegardenhelper.com/norfolk.html  ;  www.starrenvironmental.com/images/species/?q=araucaria+heterophylla&o=plants  (most of these are of Cook Pines, but not all); and of course Google images (about 1/3 of these are Cook Pines)

When it comes to large, mature populations of Norfolk Island Pines, I know of none other than I suppose on Norfolk Island itself. I would LOVE to have a bunch of photos of this species in nature to have, show and compare to the vastly more common Cook Pine, which is grown in large colonies in various locations (mostly in the tropics). One of the best examples of this are the large forests of Cook Pines on Hawaii (the big island, east side). These large groves of Cook Pines are excellent examples of how this tree can look so different in a tropical climate because these trees look almost nothing like the tiny, leaning, back yard, once-indoor-Christmas trees in southern California, where I am from, that dot our landscape in massive numbers. But even the island of Hawaii has frequently referred to their own stands of conifers as Norfolk Island Pines, so there will be a lot more convincing to do than just turning a few heads around.

  cook pines on Hawaii more cook pines on Hawaii

Large stand of Cook Pines (Araucaria columnaris) on the east coast of the Big Isalnd of Hawaii, often referred to as Norfolk Island Pines 

The similarities: Both trees show the symmetry that makes this genus Araucaria so ornamental, though both to an exaggerated extent. The branches are set at regular intervals very unlike the seemingly random placement of branches in most other species of conifer. In warmer climates, the branches are far enough in both species apart that there are even spaces seen between them giving these trees an almost manufactured quality, rather than something nature would create (this open, symmetrical look is always the case with Araucaria heterophylla despite climatic variations, though) . Both trees have interestingly upright foliage (though not to the same degree). And both have a tall, triangular silhouette, that makes them 'ideal' Christmas trees, at least in shape, if not size or cold tolerance (neither like snow). Both have the same ferny, soft, non-painful foliage when young that makes them popular indoor trees (though temporarily only).

 cook pine symmetry Norfolk Pine symmetry

Both trees (Cook Pine on left and Norfold Isalnd Pine on right) are very symmetrical, conical trees with upright foliage. 

The differences: 1) The Cook Pine, Araucaria columnaris, is named scientifically due to its columnar shape. Very old trees tend to lose a bit of their triangular silhouette and adopt a more columnar one as the lower branches fray away. And even younger trees do not obtain the same spread one sees in Norfolk Island Pines. Norfolk Island pines retain their strongly triangular silhouette pretty much their entire lives though some lower branch tip attrition seems to occur as well. So Cook Pines are somewhat to much narrower in their silhouettes. Both are solitary trees (though Cook Pines are often sold as clumps of trees (2-4 in a group) making some think these are suckering species).

 old cook pine old cook pine SD

Here are some old Cook Pines in California that are easy to tell are NOT Norfolk Island Pines- very columnar... but these are very old specimens.

older Norfolk  older Norfolk

Older plants in California, though not sure HOW old.  Plant on left is the 'glauca' version in the Huntington Gardens and right is a plant Ventura.  Some of triangular shape gets lost in these older plants near the very bottoms.  By the way, there is a smaller Cook Pine in the first photo in the background- the dense columnar conifer just to the left of the Norfolk Island Pine

2) There is a huge size difference between these two species, best appreciated when the two are grown side by side. Both can attain great height (over 100 feet), but the spread on a Norfolk Island Pine is massive, making it a poor choice for most back yards, while the Cook Pine, particularly in the Southern California climate, is a great, smaller tree for most little yards. The Norfolk Island Pine is some 3x as great a diameter at its base than most Cook Pines. This feature is the the primary differences between these two species and one that most don't appreciate since they rarely get to be seen in person.

 Norfolk pine size  Norfolk glauca size

Norfolk Island Pine dwarfing a house in La Jolla, California (left) and the Huntington's plant with people down to the right of right photo 

 Cook pines  Cook Pine and Tammy

Cook pines in California showing relatively smaller size (Cook Pines do eventually get tall, but most taller pines are pretty skinny and harder to confuse with Norfolk Island Pines) 

3) Norfolk Island Pines, partly due to their greater size, have much more spread in between their branches giving them an even more symmetrical look than seen in most Cook Pines. Cook Pines are much more densely foliated (again, takes two side by side to really appreciate this fully). The tops of the Norfolk Island Pines have so much distance between the branches that it seems exaggerated and weird looking, a look rarely seen in Cook Pines. And Cook Pines have more foliage, in general, towards the center of the tree, while Norfolk Island Pines have little or no foliage there, giving them a much airier, almost naked look. These characteristics are among the better ones to tell these two apart.

 Norfolk pine lower branches  spaces in Norfolk island Pine 

left shows lower branch of a Norfolk Island Pine in Golden Gate Park... this tree was about thirty feet in diameter from branch tip to branch tip (never seen a Cook Pine in California anywhere near that wide);  photo on right is of younger Norfolk Island Pine in Los Angeles showing exaggerated distance between branches I never see in Cook Pines 

 lower branches of a large cook pine   typical cook pine spacing

left is a shot of the lower branches of a large Cook Pine on Hawaii, which are the most Norfolk Island Pine- looking of any Cook Pines I have seen.  Right is a tyipical Cook Pine in Southern California showing the typical dense foliage you never see in Norfolk Island Pines. 

4) Norfolk Island Pines have VERY upright foliage, with nearly all their branchlets facing straight up to the sky. On old plants with branches near the ground, some of the foliage may be more in disarray and not necessarily upright. But on Cook Pines, most of the lower foliage is rarely pointing upwards, and that that is, is not always pointing straight up.  See photos above for comparison

cook pine foliage  more cook pine foliage

Two shots of my neighborhood Cook PInes showing foliage NOT very upright as it usually is in all but the very bottom branches (sometimes) in Norfolk Island Pines 

5) Cook Pines tend to lean, sometimes so much so that they look like they are falling over (and sometimes they actually do). Some young Cook Pines lean at an early age, but most Cook Pines tend to lean a bit more as they age. I see this leaning far more pronounced in Southern California trees than I do on the island of Hawaii, where most Cook Pines are pretty much straight up and down. The cause of the leaning is not known to me. Norfolk Island Pines invariably grow straight up an down, perfectly symmetrically, their entire lives, at least here in California. This leaning is a very good way to tell Cook Pines, though unfortunately not all Cook Pines lean.

 Cook Pine in So Cal  tall cook pine in SD another cook pine leaner

Cook Pines in Southern California showing typical leaning behavior 

6) Cook Pines have very flaky, peeling bark, at least relative to the Norfolk Island Pine (some of these Norfolk Island Pines have pretty flaky bark but it is RELATIVELY less flakey). To me, this is not a good way to tell these two apart, but this feature is discussed by others on the internet.

 cook pine trunk  Norfolk Island Pine trunk

Trunk of a typical Cook Pine in Southern California (left) and one of a Norfolk Island Pine (right) 

7) The foliage of Cook Pines is deeper green than the 'forest green' of Norfolk Island Pines (again somewhat of a subjective difference).  I have seen seem pretty bright green Norfolk Island Pines

 cook pine foliage Norfolk Island Pine foliage of very tall tree

Foliage of a Cook Pine (left) and a Norfolk Island Pine (right)... Norfolk Island Pine foliage is not as upright near the very bottom of this very old tree, but was noticably less green.   

8)  I am not sure how concrete this last difference is, but I have never seen a Norfolk Island Pine branch, yet frequently the smaller Cook Pines I see around send up a second branching stem anywhere from a few feet to a dozen feet off the ground, giving one the sense of there being several trees growing very closely, when it's really just a single trunked tree with a second trunk staring part way up.

 branching cook another brancher

Not easy to tell at first, but these two Cook Pines above have single trunks, yet by the time your eye gets to the top of the tree you notice two or more tree tops.  Not ever seen this happen in Norfolk Island Pines 

So below are some photos of both Norfolk Island Pines (many of these trees exist along the coast of Southen California, though 'many' is relative to the gazillions of Cook Pines there are along the coast) and Cook Pines.  I purposely put a photo of a Cook Pine as the heading of this article just to see if anyone would notice, that perhaps did not read this far, and attempted to correct me.  I will add an adendum in the future to let you know if anyone noticed my 'error'.  

 cook Pine  Cook Pine

Cook Pines in Southern California

 Norfolk i pine N pine

Two more Norfolk Island Pines in southern California 

 below view of a tall Cook Pine in Hawaii  below view of N Pine

Views from below of a very old, large Cook Pine in Hawaii (left), and a Norfolk Island Pine in California (right)

 Norfolk pine Nor Cal NIpine

Two more Norfolk Island Pines in California (northern- left and southern- right) 

neighborhood cook pine 4  more neighborhood cookies

Two more neighborhood Cook Pines, no doubt obtained as 'living Christmas trees' (labeled as Norfolk Island Pines of course) some years back and since planted in the garden 

  unknown Unclear

two shots of tree in San Diego that is not that clear to me which species it is... probably a Cook Pine based on relatively narrow spread, and density of foliage... but ? 


  About Geoff Stein  
Geoff SteinVeterinarian and Exotic Plant Lover... and obsessive, compulsive collector of all oddball tropical and desert plants.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
multi-headed stellamarina 1 2 Dec 21, 2013 9:52 AM
Another entrenched error . . Resin 11 56 Dec 9, 2013 3:09 PM
Rollover labels on your pictures coboro 1 8 Dec 9, 2013 3:09 PM
Most educational and thorough. KanapahaLEW 0 4 Dec 9, 2013 5:57 AM
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