When is a pine, not a pine? When it is a Norfolk Island Pine. Norfolk Island Pines are a tropical plant hailing from the South Seas. The pine’s story is an odd one, intertwined with monkey puzzles, sailing ships and Mutiny on the Bounty.
Norfolk Island Pine Araucaria heterophylla, is not even remotely related to pines. No conifer hailing from frozen climes, this one is native to sea-kissed islands and tropical breezes. Although this pine is noted for its gently curving, symmetrical branches and demure size, in nature it is a Goliath, easily reaching heights of up to 200 feet with a straight trunk prized by shipbuilders.
Here in America, this tree is most prized as a “Christmas tree” that can be grown inside year-round. Although beautiful, the tree is notorious for dropping lower branches. A pebble tray, frequent misting and as humid an environment as possible are keys to success for this tree. It likes to be kept on the cool side and thrives on bright, indirect light.
The Norfolk Island Pine’s closest cousin is the oddly-named, “Monkey Puzzle Tree” Araucaria araucana so named because the tree is so savagely guarded by thorns on every surface that it is said to baffle even the wisest monkey. Strangely, this tropical oddity is grown in very chilly England where it was introduced in 1795 and in Ireland where it is still a popular landscaping tree.
Shipping features prominently in the Norfolk Island story as this was one tree reserved by English law for use in Her Majesties sailing ships. Norfolk’s supplies of lumber and flax became crucial wartime necessities as the successful American Revolution denied Britain the bounty of its former colony.
Norfolk Island intersects even more strangely with the famous Mutiny on the Bounty. Norfolk is one of two South Pacific islands sheltering the descendants of the renegade Bounty crew who set Captain Bligh and 18 loyal members of his crew adrift on the high seas. Said crew decided to dump Bligh and his autocratic ways after exposure to the beguiling sexuality of the Tahitian maidens during their voyage out.
Although Bligh’s reputation as a people-person took many knocks, his skill as captain and navigator was unparalleled. He led his tiny crew adrift in a 23 foot dingy with few supplies on the longest successful open boat voyage in history, one of over 3,500 nautical miles for seven grueling weeks. He made it safely ashore and lived to testify against his tormentors.
The mutineers did not fare so well. Her Majesty sent the HMS Pandora after them and those caught were shipped back to England housed in a makeshift cell on HMS Pandora nicknamed “Pandora’s Box.” During the return trip, 4 prisoners and 31 crew of the Pandora died after the ship ran aground on a reef. The only surviving prisoners owed their lives to a decision to open the cells as the ship sank. When the survivors finally made it to England on another ship, four were identified as innocent by Bligh and spared, three were hung, two were found guilty but pardoned, and the remaining man was reprieved by a technicality.
Some mutineers under Fletcher Christian who had earlier split off from the rest successfully hid out on tiny Pitcairn Island and escaped Bligh’s vengeance, but later were savagely attacked by Tahitians they had kidnapped for brides and labor. The native men were driven to fury when the white men monopolized the stolen women and land.
To this day descendants of the mutineers live on Pitcairn and Norfolk Islands.