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Nature in Los Altos

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

During the shelter-in-place, Sutro Stewards with partnership from Handson Bay Area created Nature in you Neighborhood a virtual volunteering experience where we challenge volunteers to go out into their backyard and neighborhoods to see what plants they can find near them! Below is one submission from our project with the youth from Handson Tomorrow. We hope you enjoy their discoveries!

By: Emmett Chung

Plant 1: Norfolk pine

Norfolk pine in a front yard, Los Altos.

While walking about Los Altos, my attention was drawn to a very short pine tree which to me resembled some kind of fern. In fact, after further research, I discovered that it was a Norfolk pine tree (Araucaria heterophylla). Despite the name, it is not a pine tree. An ornamental plant, the tree is native to a small island in the South Pacific Ocean, Norfolk Island, approximately 900 miles east of the Australian mainland. A key export of the island, the eponymous pine tree even appears on Norfolk Island's flag. As a native of tropical climates, it cannot grow in cold temperatures and is as popular as an indoor Christmas tree. Indoors, the tree only encounters a single species which finds itself reliant upon placing shiny glass and metal objects upon it, humans. However, it is able to grow outdoors all over California and even in sand along the coast due to its evolutionary resistance to salt and wind, the product of its island habitat. 

Unfortunately for the trees themselves, they are cut at a young age to ensure they are the proper size for use indoors. Otherwise, they grow upwards of 100 feet wild along Highway 1 and up to 200 feet tall on their native Norfolk Island. Notably, the tree has a nearly perfectly pentagonal trunk, and the soft leaves of the young trees makes them more suitable for ornaments. Though significant conservation efforts have been made for the plant in its native habitat, its extensive commercial growth in the US and Europe places its conservation status at least concern. While the Norfolk pine can be found all over the world, California (and parts of Florida) is the only place in the US with suitable temperatures for its outdoor growth. Though my family traditionally uses an artificial pine tree, the compact and beautiful Norfolk Pine will definitely be worth considering for the holiday season.

Plant 2: Western thistle