Meri Kirihimete to readers near & far

  • The natural range of pohutukawa is from New Plymouth and Gisborne north.
  • The trees that grow around lakes Rotoiti, Tarawera and Okataina  in the central North Island are the only natural inland populations.
  • The largest pohutukawa forest in the world is on Rangitoto Island.
  • The oldest and largest tree in the Tauranga area is at the Pitau Rd reserve in Mount Maunganui, believed to be 400 to 500 years old.
  • The variety Metrosideros excelsa Mt Maunganui are all cutting-grown descendants of this tree.

Nothing says Christmas in New Zealand like our very own Christmas tree decorated in red and green – and in 2014, thanks perhaps to our cold, extended spring, many will be at peak blooming for Christmas Day.

The pohutukawa (po-hoot-oo-car-wah) is part of the Metrosideros family that includes 12 species native to New Zealand, most of them rata (a name applied to vines, shrubs and trees). There are also Metrosideros native to the Pacific islands, including New Caledonia, Samoa, Fiji and the Kermadec Islands.

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Nothing says summer more than pohutukawa in flower at the beach. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Metrosideros excelsa is the most common tree in New Zealand and is a vigorous plant with tenacious seedlings that will even grow in cracks in concrete. It’s also popular in parts of South Africa but is now regarded as an invasive species, while street plantings in San Francisco ended up causing expensive damage to pavements and pipes.

There are many forms of M. excelsa available, including Aurea (note that the date of discovery quoted in the link is more likely to be 1940, not 1840) and Moon Maiden (both with yellow-ish flowers), Gala (variegated leaves), Pink Lady (pink flowers), Octopussy (weeping habit), Maori Princess (dark red flowers, often single trunked and all descended from a single tree in New Plymouth), and Vibrance (bright red flowers, often single trunked with a spreading canopy).

Here in Tauranga, the City Council uses big trees in reserves (M. excelsa, for instance, can grow to 20m high and 20m wide) and smaller varieties on streets and verges with the slower-growing “compact” Scarlet Pimpernel preferred for under power lines.

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Metrosideros Maori Princess is used as a street tree in parts of Tauranga. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Lighthouse is a variety from the lava flows of Rangitoto Island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf and is another “compact, erect” tree to 5m, while Mistral is a natural hybrid of M. excelsa and the northern rata, Metrosideros robusta, discovered on Great Barrier Island and described as slow-growing to 4m.

Maungapiko is a cross between M. excelsa and southern rata, Metrosideros umbellata, and is described as slow-growing to 5m.

If you hanker after pohutukawa flowers but not the size of the tree, you could try the small, shrub-like Tahiti which flowers from winter into spring, or Spring Fire (based on a plant native to Hawaii) that flowers from spring into summer.

Generally, though, pohutukawa from other places tend to flower off and on throughout the year rather than putting on a massed display in summer.

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Some pohutukawa grow red-tinged aerial roots. This is the oldest tree in the Tauranga area, dating to pre-European times. The multi-trunked tree can be found in Pitau Road, Mt Maunganui. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Although pohutukawa have now been planted widely throughout the country by Project Crimson, southern rata may be a better bet for readers further south in New Zealand.

Read a Sandra’s Garden story about specialist Tauranga area growers, Pohutukawas a Plenty.

It’s summer!

Whatever the weather’s doing, summer has arrived when the pohutukawa come into flower.

I noticed the yellow pohutukawa trees (Metrosideros excelsa Aurea) out along Cameron Rd a week or so ago, well ahead of the red ones, which at Fraser Cove last Wednesday night didn’t even look like they were in bud. So I had a nice surprise today when I saw that they too had started to flower.

The yellow flowers aren’t very exciting, except as a botanical curiosity. Native to Motiti Island off the coast of Tauranga, they still aren’t seen much, although I have noticed a couple in private gardens around the city in the past week or so and last year was directed to a large tree in the grounds of the church opposite Otumoetai Primary School.

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Yellow pohutukawa. Photo: Sandra Simpson

This article says the tree was first discovered by a Mr Potts  – the correct date is more like to be 1940 (rather than 1840 as the first reference has it).

The red-flowered trees are certainly more striking and with the trees flowering round about Christmas, they remain ever popular. Naturally, the tree’s southern range is about from New Plymouth to Gisborne but, thanks to Project Crimson and our love of the flowers, they can now be seen growing all around the country, including as far south as Otago Harbour.

The newer varieties are more reliable flowerers – some of the old trees flower in sections or have one good year and one not so good – and the trees in the Fraser Cove carpark have been chosen not only for their good flowering but also for their upright shape.

Metrosideros excelsa Maori Princess is generally a single-trunked tree, all of them descended from a single tree in New Plymouth.

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Pohutukawa in flower at Maxwell Rd, Tauranga. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The next neat thing that will happen along the city end of Cameron Rd is the jacarandas coming into flower …