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To the uninitiated the Norfolk Pine (Araucaria heterophylla1) is a natural part of Australian beach dunes. They grow throughout coastal Australia. Tall, straight and looking like sparse Christmas trees, they are a common sight. They stick up from the languid, laid-back native vegetation like exclamation marks.
It is surprising therefore, to realise that they are incomers to the country and are there under false pretences.
Conifers Made Good Ships' Masts
In the 18th and 19th Centuries, British ships arrived in Australia to disgorge cargoes of convicts and military personnel. They had sailed for weeks across often wild seas, suffering creaks, cracks and breaks in their woodwork. There was a desperate need to replace ships' masts.
As Robert Hughes says in The Fatal Shore (1987):
The mainmast of a 74-gun first-rater was three feet thick at the base, and rose 108 feet from keelson to truck - a single tree, dead straight and flawlessly solid. Such a vessel needed some 22 masts and yards as well. No other timber would do. Only conifers made good masts, because of their natural straightness and because the pine resin cut down friction between the fibres in their grain. This second characteristic made the great sticks relatively supple, so that they could absorb the punishing stress of heavy-weather sailing.
At the time the only source of such timber was Riga, which was then a Russian port and not very convenient for British ships in the Antipodes. An alternative was needed.
Norfolk Pines to the Rescue?
Fortunately Captain Cook had seen massive, straight pines when he sailed into Norfolk Island in 1774. The shipwrights' eyes must have gleamed with delight when they saw those majestic trees. In its native habitat the trees can grow up to 200 feet tall (60 metres) with a girth described by Captain Cook as more than can be encircled by six men with arms outstretched.
Cook recommended that the island be secured for the British Crown when he recognised the potential value of the trees for ships' masts. In addition, the native flax3 was identified as being suitable with which to weave sail cloth. However, developing a free settlement on Norfolk Island proved impossible due to its lack of a navigable harbour4.
Consequently seedlings were transplanted to Australia, where they were nurtured and grown to substantial heights. In a few years they were felled and became masts. Unfortunately, what nobody considered checking beforehand was whether these majestic pines would actually be good substitutes for Riga conifers on the British first-raters.
They were made into masts. And they broke.
They all broke.
The wood was too dry and too brittle to be of any use at all. In fact, very soon it was discovered that the timber was useless for anything; even house-building or furniture.
The Admiralty had to fall back on imported pines from the Baltic after all; at great expense and considerable delay. There was after all, no alternative.
The Introductions Survived
However, Norfolk Pines thrived in Australian conditions that preclude many other trees; sandy soil, salt-wind and heat. In other words along most of the coast.
They are predictably symmetrical and green, so they are also ideal for designed landscapes. Today they stand proud in public parks, they are on parade along seafronts and they provide a green splash in urban areas.
And of course, the Norfolk Pine adorns the flag which has flown over Norfolk Island since 1980.