Meri Kirihimete! We’re inching ever closer to Christmas 2018, so there’s no better plant to focus for this month’s horticulture blog, than the stunning pōhutukawa.

Affectionately known as New Zealand’s Christmas tree, the unmistakable crimson flowers of this coastal native are an important symbol for kiwis at home and abroad. Their December blooms herald in the start of summer, and recall memories of holidays spent at the bach or by the beach with friends and whānau. In fact, the first recorded mention of the pōhutukawa as a symbol of a kiwi Christmas was made in 1857!

Many of New Zealand’s special and endemic plants like rātā, kānuka and mānuka belong to the myrtle family (Myrtaceae) of plants, which is made up of about 3000 different species of tree, shrub and vine.

Within this family, sit New Zealand’s two species of pōhutukawa –  our most familiar and recognisable strain is Metrosideros excelsa, and found on Aotearoa’s volcanic Kermadec Islands is Metrosideros kermadecensis. The name Metrosideros comes from the Ancient Greek metra which means ‘iron hearted’ and the species name excelsa comes from the Latin excelsus for ‘sublime’ – for it’s strong, robust timber.

Pōhutukawa are tapu (sacred) to Māori, known as rākau rangatira (chiefly trees) for their status in the forest canopy as one of the first to greet the sun. There is also the Māori pūrākau (legend) about the warrior Tawhaki – the atua (god) of thunder and lightning – who was flung from the skies by Tama-i-waho and in the process of falling from the heavens to earth, stained the flowers of the pōhutukawa and rata bright red with his blood.

Parts of the tree are used in traditional Māori rongoā (medicine); the inner bark can be boiled into a juice to cure dysentery, and the flower’s pale and sweet nectar is used to treat sore throats.

Arguably, the most famous pōhutukawa is the 800-year-old tree that clings to the wind-swept cliff face at Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga). This is said by Māori to be the ‘place of leaping’ and gateway to the underworld.

Auckland Zoo

Arguably, the most famous pōhutukawa in Māori pūrākau is the 800-year-old tree that clings to the wind-swept cliff face at Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga). This is said to be the ‘place of leaping’ and gateway to the underworld, where spirits descend down the roots of the tree and into the sea, to begin the journey to their ancestral homeland, Hawaiki.

Unfortunately these native plants are under threat of myrtle rust fungus and if you see evidence of the powdery spores please don’t touch them or collect a specimen. Instead take a photo, record where the tree is and then report it by calling MPI’s pest and disease hotline.

The rich red timber of the pōhutukawa is strong and durable, but due to the twisting growth habit of the tree, it is difficult to find straight sections of wood to work with. Early Māori found many uses for this tree – dyes and essential oils could be extracted from the bark, the timber could be used for making boats, paddles, weapons and eel clubs and curved branches that had almost reached the ground were perfect for fish hooks.

In New Zealand, the pōhutukawa is a home for many of our foraging fauna, and also plays a vital role in keeping our coastal cliffs in place, helping to keep erosion at bay. This is due to the masses of small fibrous roots that hang down from its lower branches – allowing the pōhutukawa to put down new and distinct root structures.

We would suggest planting a native tree in a very large pot first, before deciding where to plant it in your yard. These stately trees can live for hundreds of years, so you want to make sure you’ve chosen the correct place for them!

Here in our zoo grounds you can also see different types of pōhutukawa from our Pacific neighbours – the Hawaiian Metrosideros polymorpha and Tahitian Metrosideros Tahiti varieties.   

Stay tuned for the next blog in this series and if you have any recommendations on plants we should cover or questions for our horticulture experts, flick us an email!