It’s often called the New Zealand Christmas Tree because the peak blooming season of this magnificent tree with its crimson flowers is usually in mid-December and lasts through Christmas.
The flowers look like spiky crimson balls or like bursting red fireworks with yellow tips. Indeed, once you see this splendid tree in bloom, you will never forget it.
The pohutukawa tree, Metrosideros excelsa, is endemic to New Zealand and a member of the Myrtaceae tree family, a group noted for their showy, fluffy flowers.
When the Europeans arrived in New Zealand, pohutukawa were initially only found in the coastal areas of the North Island but now it has been planted throughout New Zealand, and has also been transplanted to America, Europe and Africa.
The tree grows up to 25 meters tall in a dome-like shape often with multiple trunks and large spreading branches, both of which are often twisted and gnarly. The leaves are green and thick with a waxy upper surface which protects them the sea spray in the environment where pohutukawa often grows.
The tree is actually particularly noted for its ability to cling to steep rocky shoreline cliffs. It thrives alongside the sea, easily withstanding drought, strong winds and the salt spray and can live for hundreds of years. The roots grow deep into the cliff sides anchoring it firmly in its harsh environment. Pohutukawa also have what are called aerial roots; these grow off the branches and trunks, rarely however reaching the ground.
Older trees are often wider than they are tall. Here is an example of an enormous tree near our house with multiple supports holding up the large spreading branches.
Trivia: the largest pohutukawa in NZ and the world is located in Te Araroa and is 21 meters tall and 40 meters in diameter
The trees flower over a period for two weeks with the flowers lasting about seven days. The flowers are usually bright red although they can be pink, yellow or white.
Technically the flowers of pohutukawa are part of what are called inflourescenses which refers to the fact that clusters of flowers grow on a single stem.
The red spikes you see in the flower are multiple stamens (the pollen-producing male reproductive organ of flowers) tipped with yellow anthers which carry the actual pollen. At the base of the single style (part of the female reproductive organ of the same flower) is a cup-like structure containing nectar. Obviously any animal attempting to get to this popular nectar receives over his body a good brushing of pollen which is then carried and spread to other flowers.
Lots of critters feed in the flowers and therefore serve as pollinators, birds and bees in the daylight and bats and geckos at night.
Maori collected nectar from the flowers as a treatment for sore throat. One book said, “To get a taste try poking your tongue into the flowers as the birds do.” Okay, so I tried it.
First, I had to pick a spot when no one was watching since I felt a bit silly. It tastes like—well, it tastes like slightly sweet water. I was actually surprised by the amount of nectar in each flower, almost a small sip. Anyway, to continue . . .
Pohutukawa trees are currently protected by law. Their survival has been threatened by the possum which eats new growth on the trees and over time can destroy entire populations of the trees.
Now at Christmas time, the coastline around Mount Maunganui where we live is filled with these spectacular trees in full bloom.
Finally you have to remember Christmas is different down here. It’s summer. It’s warm and people often go to the beach. The kids have just been released from school for their long summer vacation. It is more common to have a barbeque outside than a big sit-down Christmas dinner.
It hasn’t really even felt like Christmas. There is certainly less frenetic energy associated with the holidays here. Apparently on Boxing Day, December 26, the day after Christmas, there are massive sales at all the stores in New Zealand. Because some things are so bloody expensive here, some parents have apparently even been known to tell their young children that Christmas comes a wee bit later than the 25th in order to take advantage of the bargains. I’m not sure Rebecca would fall for that.
And as the following Kiwi song says our Christmas is more likely to occur under a pohukatawa tree. All of the images in the video could have been filmed in the area around our house.