The Cook Pine (Araucaria columnaris) is native to Cook Island, which is a small island to the northeast of Australia. It is sometimes called the New Calcedonian Pine or the Coral Reef Araucaria. Since its discovery it has been introduced to regions with similar climates, such as Hawaii, where it grows readily. It is an easily recognized narrow evergreen conifer reaching heights of 60 meters (200 feet) tall. It is one of the most common Araucaria trees seen as ornamentals, and it grows readily in temperate climates, but does not tolerate the cold. They can also make adequate container plants because they are slow-growing. In colder areas they can be easily kept indoors. Known to be tough trees, they are often seen in urban landscapes in Australia, Central America and southern California.
The tree was discovered by Captain Cook during his second expedition to the Pacific. Captain Cook became the namesake of both the island and the tree. The genus name, Araucaria, is derived from the Arauco people of Chile, where other related species grow plentifully. Fossil records show that trees related to the modern Araucaria once also existed in the northern hemisphere during prehistoric times.
The bark of the tree is dark gray and scaly, peeling off easily in flakes, similar to other Araucaria trees like the Moreton Bay Pine. Cook Pines are sometimes confused with the similar Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla). The two species of trees are basically indistinguishable when young. When mature, the Norfolk Island Pine always has a straight trunk, while the Cook Pine will always curve, despite their uniform appearance. Usually a curve can be found near the base of the trunk. The branchlets are short, horizontal and dense, giving the tree its distinct column-like shape. The Norfolk Island pine is less dense and more conical. Juvenile leaves are needle-like, but as the trees age the leaves become wider and ovate, flattening sometimes into layers, contributing to the density of the tree.
Like other conifers, the Cook Pine produces cones. Male cones are small and cylindrical, 6 to 8 centimeters (2 to 3 inches) long. They typically hang on lower branches. The female cones are larger and erect, usually around 12 centimeters (5 inches). They appear in upper branches. When the cones mature, they break apart and release their scales, which have the seeds attached. Cones are initially green, but become reddish-brown before they fall.