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We are blessed here in Aotearoa to have a wide variety of native trees that brighten our landscapes and warm our hearts. From the mighty Kauri to the shade-producing Totara, we’re genuinely spoiled.
However, the Pōhutukawa, or New Zealand Christmas tree as it is also known, has truly won our hearts. In this Spotlight on Native Trees article, we’ll look at what makes the Pōhutukawa so special, how to grow one for yourself, and more.
What is the Pōhutukawa?
Pōhutukawa trees are coastal evergreens in the myrtle family with many names. You might hear them called by their scientific name, Metrosideros excelsa, New Zealand Christmas tree, iron tree, or even New Zealand Christmas bush.
These beautiful multi-trunked spreading trees grow up to 25 metres high and are one of 12 Metrosideros species endemic to New Zealand. They have matted, fibrous aerial roots, leathery leaves with dense, white hairs, and red flowers. Although, some also grow white, orange, and yellow flowers.
Pōhutukawa trees flower from November to January, peaking in early Summer, and they feature on many Kiwi Christmas cards. They are a true delight to see on our summer road trips.
Where Does the Pōhutukawa Grow?
Pōhutukawa is known as the New Zealand Christmas tree, but it doesn’t thrive in all parts of Aotearoa. It generally only grows in North Island coastal regions from New Plymouth to Gisborne, on the shores of lakes, around Rotorua, and even in Abel Tasman National Park at the top of the south. This beautiful tree species is also a cliff-dweller, which means you may spot it growing in near-vertical environments.
Unfortunately, pastoral farming and introduced pests saw Pōhutukawa forest numbers dwindle by over 90 percent.
History of Pōhutukawa
The beautiful and highly regarded Pōhutukawa tree has a rich history and a prominent place in Māori mythology. Legend has it that a young Māori warrior, Tawhaki, attempted to find help in heaven to avenge his father’s death. He fell to earth, and the crimson flowers are described as being his blood.
The most famous Pōhutukawa is one clinging from a cliff face near Cape Reinga/Te Rerenga Wairua. The tree is supposedly 800 years old and is thought to guard the entrance to a sacred cave that disembodied spirits use to pass through to the next world.
Pōhutukawa has even been used for shipbuilding, and Māori relied on the strong, dense wood to craft beaters and small, heavy items. Extracts of the Pōhutukawa were even turned into medicines for wounds, diarrhoea, dysentery, and sore throats.
Pōhutukawa Growing Tips
The history, beauty, and mythology surrounding the Pōhutukawa tree make it one that many people want to grow for themselves. Tree care experts like Pro Climb can assist with all your tree health requirements, but we’ve also included some helpful tips below.
- Grow your Pōhutukawa in any soil type, from light sandy soil to heavy clay soil, as long as it’s not waterlogged.
- If you’re growing one in a pot, their large and fibrous root system means a large pot around the size of a wine barrel may be required.
- Shelter them from frost while young. Frost can burn and kill Pōhutukawa trees. It can also damage foliage that causes fewer flowers to grow.
- Pōhutukawa flowers don’t like being picked from the plant for display in a vase.
- You can grow Pōhutukawa trees in challenging coastal conditions.
- Pōhutukawa trees germinate from seed, but cuttings are a better option.
Threats to Pōhutukawa
Pōhutukawa face a number of threats, some of which have already contributed to the significant forest loss over the years.
Possums are one of the most damaging, and their browsing in a mature tree can see it die within three years. While they generally pick from a wide range of plant types, they do tend to prefer some species more than others, and Pōhutukawa is one of their favourites.
Once the trees begin to die back, the top layer of the forest is opened up, which exposes other, once-healthy trees to adverse weather, weeds, diseases, and insects.
Myrtle rust also affects Pōhutukawa since it’s a member of the Myrtle family. Myrtle rust is a fungal disease that has established itself in New Zealand. Symptoms of this disease include grey or brown spots and orange-yellow spores on the surfaces of leaves. This disease is notoriously difficult to manage.
Perhaps not surprisingly, we, too, are a danger to our beloved Pōhutukawa. Some people use these trees for firewood or even light fires under them. A simple act like parking a car on the roots may also cause damage.
Get Help With Your Pōhutukawa Tree
Our Pōhutukawa trees are special, and every single tree deserves the chance to thrive. If your Pōhutukawa isn’t thriving, or you need general advice on how to care for it, contact the expert team at ProClimb. Our tree care experts can assist with arborist services, tree care services, landscape tree services, and more.