The Pohutukawa is one of New Zealand's best known trees. It has been drawn, photographed, admired, talked about and written about throughout the years. First the Maoris and in later years the Pakeha have recognised the Pohutukawa as a very important tree.
Flowering at Christmas time each year and covering itself with bright dark crimson flowers, it is no wonder it has been called New Zealand's Christmas Tree.
The flowering of the Pohutukawa has been described by many people as "perhaps the most magnificent plant in the New Zealand flora" and "one of the floral delights when at Christmas its whole broad crown is a solid mass of red flowers". Anyone who has seen a large tree in full flower must be impressed. If not impressed by the display, one must be impressed by the thousands and thousands of flowers that cover each tree.
If you are a little late seeing the tree in full flower, then you will see another spectacle. Millions of dark red stamen carpeting the ground. A sight to behold.
The flowers are not flowers in the traditional sense examine one. It is about 75mm across, comprises three smaller flowers and has no petals. Protruding from a little cup at the base are masses of bright red stamen. It is the brilliantly coloured stamen, each about 25mm long that produce all the colour. Trees have been known to flower heavily one year and lightly the next.
Each little cup brims over with copious amounts of nectar and the birds and bees will come to feast; notably Tuis and Bellbirds. The bees collect the nectar and take it to their hives to provide honey. Rata honey is renown for its strong flavour.
Standing proudly, the Pohutukawa tree is easily recognised. Its short stout trunk supports many strong spreading branches and it will form a large rounded tree up to 18m high.
It is abundant along coastlines, and in coastal forests of Three Kings Island in the North Island. Also found around Lake Taupo and other lakes of the Volcanic Plateau. It ranges in altitude from sea level to 700 metres. The coastal environment is tough and in some exposed rocky places it may be dwarfed by the elements to a tree only lm high. Many have been planted in other locations around New Zealand and specimens can be found almost anywhere.
One of its characteristics is to produce bunches of dark red fibrous roots or rootlets which hang down but don't reach the ground.
On rocky places trees have established footholds in impossible places and can cling to the sides of cliffs. Their long twisted roots attach themselves to the rocky cliff wall. Hanging from the cliffs branches often dip into the sea and mussels have been known to attach themselves to the branches.
Adult leaves are easily recognised as the underside of each is densely covered with small white hairs (resembling a white fur). called tomentum. The leathery leaves are 30 125mm long and 30 50mm wide and dark green above. Leaves are attached to the branches by small petioles opposite each other and are spotted with oil glands.
The timber of the Pohutukawa is dark red in colour, dense, heavy and compact and very durable. Its tortuous habit of growth made it valuable for ship timbers and it was used extensively for ship building in the early days of settlement in New Zealand. The timber is very durable in salt water. It makes excellent firewood.
Legend and stories abound about the Pohutukawa. It has been said that it was the "flowering of the Pohutukawa which welcomed the Maori to New Zealand".
Maori legend also says that "Spirits of the dead travelled northward along the mountain ranges until they came to the ridge of wild rocks running out to sea in the extreme north known as Cape Reinga. They came to a giant Pohutukawa reputed to be over 800 years old, with a great limb over-hanging the rocks of the ocean. To this branch the spirits hung for some time reluctant to leave the upper world. At length, through a sea weed fringed cavern they plunged into the gloomy depths of Po. But time changes all things. So many were killed in the wars of Hongi that the great branch became bent downwards by the number of spirits who thronged it." When Mr Cheesman visited this tree in 1895 the tree was still there but the branch was broken off with only its whitened stump left. This branch was said to be the last earthly land hold for the spirit when it leapt off the world into the Reinga (underworld).
Cowan, in "The Maoris of New Zealand" wrote that "On the southern side of Lake Rotoiti stands two large and ancient Pohutukawa, famous in the forest and nature love of the lake people. If these Pohutukawss started to flower on the lowest branches first and so gradually burst into blossom from the bottom up, it was an omen of a warm and pleasant season as well as a fruitful and abundant year for crops. But if on the contrary, the buds burst first at the top and the tree flowers downwards, it is a sign of a cold and inclement season - disastrous year for crops."
When the Pohutukawa is in bloom the sea eggs (urchins) are fat and so it is a good time to collect this delicacy.
New Zealand's largest Pohutukawa Te Wahoa Rerekoha grows at Te Ara roa, has a height of 20 metres and a spread of 39 metres and is reputed to be over 300 years old.
Botanically the Pohutukawa is called Metrosideros excelsa. For some time its botanical name was Metrosideros tomentosa a reference to the dense white hairs tomentum on the underside of the leaves and on the flower buds. However, it was originally named Metrosideros excelsa in 1788. The botanists Banks and Solander first noted this tree in 1769.
Metra means middle and sideros means iron, which is a reference to the hardness of the heartwood. Excelsa means high elevated or outstanding, a reference to the flowering habit.
Pohutukawa is said to mean "spray sprinkled", a reference to the habitat of the tree and the fact that it is often sprinkled with sea spray.
There are 11 species of Metrosideros in New Zealand with other species in Polynesia. New Zealand has the only climbing species of which the best known is the Rata. Metrosideros belongs to the myrtle family which is dominated by the large genus Eucalyptus.
The Pohutukawa is easily grown from seed and from cuttings, tolerates high winds and most soil types. It will not tolerate heavy frosts until well established.
It can be planted in groups, as a specimen tree or as an avenue. Wherever it is planted it will grow well into a large tree which will dominate its position. Group plantings in parks and open spaces can provide fantastic landscape features, especially at Christmas time. It has been grown as a bonsai, tub or patio plant, and as a hedge.
A yellow flowered form was discovered in 1940 on Motiti Island, near Cape Runaway in the Bay of Islands, by a Mr Potts, known as Metrosideros excelsa 'Aurea'. A variegated form with creamy yellow margin also exists and is known as Metrosideros excelsa 'Variegata'.
This poem aptly describes the Pohutukawa:
"From crest and crevice, tortuously flung Those monstrous iron hearted myrtles hung Stiff snaky writhing trunks and roots that clave And crawled to any hold the ramparts gave."