Visitors to Norfolk Island cannot help but be impressed by the broad variety of trees found growing on this small island. In addition to the local native trees, trees from all over the world have been introduced to Norfolk. These have been brought to the island because of their usefulness, such as food plants, their commercial value and because of their appeal as garden plants. The broad range of trees able to grow successfully on Norfolk is due to the climate. It will not go unnoticed by the visitor that Norfolk has a distinctively tropical feel; because of the subtropical climate, almost any tree will grow on the island. Plants from the tropics like bananas and paw-paw grow alongside temperate species such as apples and stone fruit.
The local native trees number only 32 species, while several hundred different tree species have been brought from elsewhere since Europeans arrived in 1788. While some of the introductions, known as woody weeds, have spread and become highly invasive, others only add to the attractiveness of the island’s scenery.
One tree that cannot go unnoticed is the ubiquitous Norfolk Island Pine Araucaria heterophylla. The Norfolk Pine impressed Captain James Cook, the European discoverer of Norfolk Island, who wrote in October 1774 “…the chief produce of the isle is Spruce Pines which grow here in vast abundance and to a vast size, from two to three feet diameter and upwards…”. Cook’s suggestion that “here then is a nother Isle where masts for the tallest Ships may be had” was never realised due to the way in which the branches weaken the trunk by their growth habit.
Philip Gidley King, sent from Sydney to occupy Norfolk Island soon after Port Jackson was established in 1788 by the British, was also impressed by the size of the pines, writing “the pines which are very numerous are of an incredible size, one of them which had been blown down or fell by age, measured 140 feet [c.43 metres] & several others which we measured were 27 feet [c.8 metres] in circumference…”.
While the Norfolk Island Pine is naturally restricted to the island (endemic), it is now planted all around the world, mostly by the sea shore as it stands up to the ocean winds and never grows crooked or stunted before the wind like most other trees. The Norfolk Island Pine is a member of a genus of Southern Hemisphere trees of ancient origin occurring from Australia and New Caledonia to South America. It is an important timber tree on Norfolk and is sourced for many purposes, from constructing buildings to making furniture and toys.
White Oak Lagunaria patersonia is the second most common native tree to be found all over Norfolk Island – from tall forest giants to a wind-sheared cliff-top shrub. The species was introduced to eastern Australia as a tree for garden and public parks due to its attractive pink flowers, which can be seen in summer.
While Norfolk Island boasts no native figs, giant fig trees are not uncommon here, their huge spreading canopies and buttressed trunks immediately identifying them. A row of huge Moreton Bay Figs Ficus macrophylla along the road near Hundred Acres Reserve and a few nearby along the Reserve’s walking track are a favourite of photographers. The sprawling fig tree at the airport greeting passengers as they disembark the plane covers nearly one hectare! And an ancient White Fig Ficus virens located behind St. Barnabas Chapel was planted during the Melanesian Mission days in the 1800s and probably originated from the Solomon Islands, where it is native.
Two unmistakable endemic small rainforest trees are the huge-leaved Broad-leaved Meryta Meryta latifolia and the smaller-leaved Narrow-leaved Meryta Meryta angustifolia. The former was endangered and is now frequently planted, including at the airport garden.
The only palm species native to Norfolk is the Norfolk Island Palm Rhopalostylis baueri, which is shared with the Kermadec Islands to the north of New Zealand and is closely related to the Nīkau Palm Rhopalostylis sapida of New Zealand. These palms are easy trees to spot in the National Park rainforest as their tops poke out of the rainforest canopy in the gullies. The Thatch Palm or Kentia Palm Howea forsteriana from Lord Howe Island was introduced many years ago as a seed crop, the ‘shot’ seeds are exported to Europe as indoor plants. While this endeavour is not as profitable as it used to be, the plantations of these palms can be seen dotted around the island and give a tropical feel wherever they can be seen.
Another species that originates from the Kermedec Islands – as the name suggests – is the Kermadec Pōhutukawa Metrosideros kermadecensis. It is a bushy tree with dark green leaves and red flowers and has relatives ranging from New Zealand to Hawaii but does not occur naturally on Norfolk Island. This tree however found conditions on Norfolk to its liking and can be seen growing in many places, such as Ball Bay, and is often planted for wind breaks.
Some trees that were introduced from eastern Australia are so common that they could be mistaken for local natives; these include White Cedar Melia azedarach, known locally as ‘Lilac’ on account of the colour of the flowers, Illawarra Flame Tree Brachychiton acerifolius and Silky Oak Grevillea robusta. The Dragon Tree Dracaena draco from Madagascar is another import that makes an interesting specimen tree. It is not too widely seen, though examples can be found in the centre of Burnt Pine opposite Baunti Escapes and another in the front garden at No. 9 Quality Row.
While many weeds are harmful to the island and its economy and environment, a few are nonetheless useful. The small tree locally known as ‘Porpay‘ is the Cherry Guava Psidium cattleianum. This is one of the worst weeds found on Norfolk Island though it is also one of the most useful because of its abundant edible fruit, which can be eaten raw or made into jams and jellies.
Each year many pines and other natives are planted across the island, in the National Park, in public reverses and on private property. These plantings increase the populations of endemic species, provide habitat for the local wildlife, add to the attractiveness of the landscape and in some cases ensure a supply of pine timber into the future. Whether botanist, gardener, photographer or someone who just appreciates the scenery, visitors will find plenty of interest in the native and introduced tree flora of Norfolk Island.
Image Credit: Robin Nisbet
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 02 Issue 02, 2018. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.