Tree talk

New Zealand’s first Arbor Day was celebrated in Greytown on July 3, 1890 with schoolchildren, residents and “dignitaries”  planting 153 trees, 12 of which are still standing. The idea of a special tree-planting day fizzled out after World War 1 but was revived in 1934. In 1977 Arbor Day moved from August 4 to June 5, also World Environment Day. The world’s first Arbor Day was held on April 10, 1872 in Nebraska.

Lining the entry to the most important colonial building in New Zealand – the Treaty House at Waitangi – are pohutukawa, one of our most loved and distinctive native trees.

Each tree commemorates the visit of a Governor-General or member of the British Royal family, the first planted by Governor-General Viscount Bledisloe in 1934 during the inaugural Waitangi Day celebration on February 6.


The entry to the Treaty House at Waitangi is lined with pohutukawa planted by special visitors. Photo: Sandra Simpson

It was fitting Lord Bledisloe should have the first honour as without his generosity the Treaty House may have been lost. When he saw how dilapidated it was, he bought the house property plus another 1000 acres and gifted it to the nation – and then donated £500 to launch an appeal for the restoration of the home of James Busby, the British Resident (political officer) at the time of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between Maori chiefs and representatives of Queen Victoria. The Treaty was signed on the lawn in front of the Busby residence.

Lord Bledisloe in the uniform of the Governor-General of New Zealand. Photo: Herman John Schmidt (the National Library of New Zealand collection)

Lord Bledisloe was much liked during his term in New Zealand, mostly for his sympathetic and generous nature. He instigated a 30 per cent pay cut for himself because public servants in the country – at the time in the grip of the Depression – had had a 30 per cent pay cut, even though he then had to use private funds to carry out his duties. He also donated a certain rugby cup to the nation, but that’s another story.


‘James Busby’ in his dining room at Waitangi. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Harking back to Busby for a moment, according to the Te Ara Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, he is “best known” as the founder of Australia’s wine industry, but also grew grapes and made wine in New Zealand in the mid-19th century. His viticulture and wine manual, initially written for settlers in New South Wales, was reprinted in New Zealand in 1862. Read more about this almost-forgotten side to a sometimes forgotten man here.

In nearby Kerikeri sub-tropical expert Robin Booth has something of a rarity in his Wharepuke GardenFicus auriculata (elephant ear fig or Roxburgh fig), a tree native to China.


Ficus auriculata in Wharepuke Garden at Kerikeri. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The fruit is eaten in China and India but American research in the 1940s concluded that trees without their specialist wasp pollinator would not develop edible fruit. Robin has read that Ficus auriculata is one of the most delicious figs, “tasting like strawberries and coconut”.

“As far as I know all fig species other than the domestic fig have to be pollinated before they become succulent and edible,” he says.

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.


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.


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.

Our Christmas tree, Part 2

Pohutukawa turn on a blooming marvellous free show at this time and, besides the obvious attributes of their flowers, also offer great shade and drama to the landscape.

Pohutukawas a Plenty is a specialist nursery in Omokoroa owned by Geoff Canham and wife Liz. Geoff is a member of the New Zealand Recreation Association, a former parks manager with Tauranga City Council and now a parks and recreation consultant for Opus in Tauranga. (2013 update: Geoff is now a self-employed consultant.)


Pohutukawa blooms. Photo: Sandra Simpson

He and Liz grow their trees from seed they collect on Mauao’s base track, choosing trees that flower earlier and longer. “And because the trees are constantly hybridising among themselves,” Geoff says, “we use older ones to ensure undiluted stock.”

But collecting the seed is no walk in the park. “It’s quite a fine seed and, if it touches your skin, it is an irritant.”

The Canhams also grow cuttings of yellow-flowered pohutukawa taken from parent stock on Motiti Island – in season you can see the yellow trees in flower on the central median strip of Cameron Rd between 10th and 11th Aves.

Geoff warns that pohutukawa will be successful in a pot for only a limited time.
“Pohutukawa loathe the limited light spectrum inside and are particularly susceptible to air conditioning,” he says, adding that rata do better as a potted specimen, but are still not suitable as a fulltime indoor plant.

“We grow container specimens for display at outdoor events and reckon on about eight months in a pot as the optimum.”

Pohutukawa are great low-maintenance plants once they have their adult foliage (usually deeper green, with thicker leaves that are grey beneath), although the teenage years can be a bit rough.

“The juvenile leaves [green] of trees grown from seed can suffer from an insect called a psyllid which can give an acne-type appearance to the leaves but the psyllid doesn’t feed on adult leaves,” Geoff says. “Cutting-grown plants don’t seem to suffer.”

He suggests a systemic insecticide to control leaf rollers, other leaf miners present in buds, and scale, which is often out of sight in the root zone in containers.


Pohutukawa at Maxwell Rd, Tauranga. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Cicadas are another pest to young trees, laying eggs in the stems which then die and break off. A systemic insecticide will also control this.

“As adult trees, they tend to grow through any pest attack.”

Possums are the number one enemy, particularly in the wild where marsupial grazing may be undetected until the trees are in significant decline. With protection, regeneration is possible.

Geoff pleads with gardeners to plant their pohutukawa to “leave a legacy”.

“Pohutukawa need space, and if you’ve been given a potted plant but don’t have space you could donate yours to a park or coastline.” Pohutukawa should never be planted near a building or water pipes as their extensive root system can cause major damage.

  • For more information on Pohutukawas a Plenty see the website or phone 548 2008 or 021 351 602.

This article first appeared in the Bay of Plenty Times and has been edited slightly. It appears here with their permission.

PS: Who’s noticed the pohutukawa sculpture beside the motorway in Auckland? More about that here with details of how its constructed here.

Our Christmas tree, part I

Keeping up the Christmas theme …
  • Pohutukawa means “drenched with mist”, while the tree’s botanical name, Metrosideros excelsa, can loosely be translated as “tall ironwood”. The trees are members of the myrtle family.
  • The first recorded reference to pohutukawa as a Christmas tree was in 1867 when settlers were noted using branches to decorate churches and homes.


    A tui digs in. This photo was taken in July on the waterfront at Russell. Photo: Sandra Simpson

  • Maori legend tells of a young warrior, Tawhaki, who attempted to find heaven. He fell to earth and the crimson flowers are said to represent his blood.
  • Te Reinga is a gnarled pohutukawa on the cliff top at Cape Reinga where spirits of the dead are said to begin their journey to Hawaiiki by climbing down the roots of the 800-year-old tree.
  • Te Waha o Rerekohu at Te Araroa (22m high with branches spreading over 40m) also claims the title of oldest tree, being about 600 years old. Some at Manukau Heads are thought to be older.
  • The tree’s wood is hard and strong and was used in ship building by whalers and sealers. Maori used it for tools such as fern-root beaters, paddles, weapons and spade blades, while bark and nectar were used as medicines.
  • Originally, the trees grew only from Gisborne north, although thanks to Project Crimson they can now be found as far south as Otago Harbour.


    Pohutukawa are a feature of New Zealand’s coastline. Photo: Sandra Simpson