Italian stone pines are popular for growing as potted plants, especially during the winter holidays when they are often decorated and marketed as miniature Christmas trees. However, when you toss out the big Christmas tree, should your Italian stone pine go with it?
Let’s explore your options for keeping these delightful little pines year-round.
What Is Italian Stone Pine?
Italian stone pine (Pinus pinea) is also known as stone pine or umbrella pine. The species is native to coastal areas around the Mediterranean Sea. Stone pine is a coniferous evergreen tree and mature specimens, in ideal outdoor conditions, can grow up to 80 feet (25 m) in height. Because stone pines come from a warm, dry Mediterranean climate. They don’t adapt to climates that are drastically different from their native region.
In the Mediterranean region, stone pine has been cultivated for thousands of years for its edible pine nuts. Today, stone pines grow wild in parts of Europe, Africa and Australia. In North America, they’re most commonly used as indoor ornamentals and they’re also popular bonsai trees.
Keeping an Italian Stone Pine Indoors
Potted stone pines are low-maintenance houseplants that grow slowly and aren’t particularly sensitive. As with many houseplants, the easiest ways to kill a stone pine are by giving it too much water or not enough light.
Follow these basic care guidelines for Italian stone pine:
- Keep in a fully lit area. Near a bright window with a southern or western exposure would be ideal.
- Water approximately every 7-10 days, or whenever the top 2-4 inches (5-10 cm) of soil is dry.
- Repotting isn’t necessary more than once every two years. If you need to repot a new stone pine, it’s best to do so immediately, while the plant is still transitioning to its new home.
- When potting a stone pine, use high-quality all-purpose potting soil. Fill your pot with soil up to 2 inches (5 cm) from its rim.
What to Do with a Flocked Italian Stone Pine
When sold during the winter holidays, stone pines are often “flocked.” Flocking is a fake snow material that’s sometimes applied to live or artificial Christmas trees during the holiday season. Flocking is white and usually made from a mix of paper pulp and corn starch.
Italian stone pines that are sold with flocking make them attractive Christmas décor, but if you plan on keeping your tree alive beyond the holidays, a flock-free tree is preferable.
How to Remove Flocking from Italian Stone Pine
If your tree came with care instructions, see if they include any tips for removing the flocking. It’s also helpful to know, if possible, if the flocking is biodegradable, so you can determine how much effort to put into fully removing it from the plant and the pot.
If the flocking is fairly dry and loose, you might be able to gently vacuum some of it off with a brush attachment. Be prepared to abandon this strategy if you’re knocking loose too many needles.
Most likely, you’ll want to use water. You can try a spray bottle that gently washes off some flocking and moistens the particles for easier removal. You can also run the plant under a lukewarm shower. Take care not to spill the soil while moving the pot around.
Finally, try gently brushing the needles with a hairbrush, comb, or soft toothbrush. Remove as much flocking as you can without being rough on the tree. If some bits are tough to get off, it’s probably best to leave them in place and allow the tree to shed them over time.
Growing an Italian Stone Pine Outdoors
Stone pines can be grown as outdoor ornamentals in some parts of the U.S., especially in Southern California. Stone pine is hardy to USDA Zone 8 and can’t tolerate temperatures lower than 20°F (-7°C) in the winter, and not for extended periods of time.
Don’t forget that wind can cause your tree to experience even lower temperatures. Italian stone pines grown in containers are especially vulnerable to freezing roots since they have less protection than trees grown in the ground.
On that note, in most parts of North America, stone pines won’t survive as full-time outdoor trees.
Stone pines don’t thrive in places with:
- Extreme cold
- Major temperature swings
- High humidity
Stone pine does grow well in the ground in many areas along the California coast, southwest Texas, and the southern regions of Florida.
If you plant a stone pine outdoors, select a well-lit location and well-drained soil. Expect a growth rate of around three feet per year for the first few years. Stone pines that survive to maturity become low-maintenance, drought-tolerant trees.
In most areas, stone pines should remain potted. However, depending on your climate, your plant can do well in its pot outdoors during the summer and parts of the fall and spring.
Disposing of a Dying or Unwanted Potted Stone Pine
Owning a potted plant isn’t a lifetime commitment. Perhaps you received a stone pine as a holiday gift, and it simply doesn’t fit into your long-term houseplant plans. That’s nothing to feel guilty about.
To give your Italian stone pine a green burial, compost it. Just tear off the branches, break them into a few pieces, and toss them in your compost pile. If the trunk hasn’t grown too thick, snap it into a few pieces or chop it up with a handsaw. Composting old houseplants is a lovely way to continue a natural cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Composting is easier than it seems, and you don’t need to be an expert to run a simple compost pile. Get started with this composting guide for beginners.