Another Glorious Red New Zealand Summer

Pohutukawa Metrosideras excelsaYou can tell that summer and the festive season are here. It’s difficult to miss with the tell-tale red lights of the pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa) signalling the way. The pohutukawa is also known as the New Zealand Christmas Tree because of the beautiful crimson display that flares at the end of November and right through January.

The red flower heads look like balls of fluff thanks to their petals being inconspicuous. The mass is made of long red stamens, lightly tipped with golden pollen sacks. And they light up the tree as if covered in red tinsel.

The pohutukawa is a New Zealand native but comes from the Myrtaceae or Myrtle family that also gives us clove, guava, feijoa and eucalyptus. It’s less fragrant than the other relatives but is so well loved that we can’t get enough of it.

More on the beauty, the symbolism and the protection of New Zealand pohutukawa with plenty of links, after the jump

Pohutukawa: Symbols of kaha (strength) and aroha (love)

We Kiwis love them. They symbolise strength and determination and cause a wave of Aotearoa pride and aroha. The pohutukawa is predominantly a coastal tree –  clinging on to rocky coastline, often pummeled by the surf. The trunks are a bit twisted, gnarled and tenacious (like many New Zealanders : ). Another interesting feature are the aerial roots that reach out searching for new opportunities.

The most famous pohutukawa is known as Te Reinga and grows on a rock on the tip of Cape Reinga. The tree is beleived to be 800-1200 years old, two-three times the generally accepted lifespan of a pohutukawa. It is sacred to the Maori who beleive it to be the place where the spirits step off from this world onto the next.

Pohutukawa: Tasty and tough

pohutukawa flowerThe sweet taste of pohutukawa nectar is loved, not only by birds. Pohutukawa is becoming increasingly popular as a boutique flavouring and a honey. I totally recommend Kapiti Ice Cream’s Pohutukawa honey flavour – it’s divine. And where there is honey, mead is sure to follow.

Pohutukawa timber is extremely hard and durable, known as one of New Zealand’s iron-hearted trees. The timber used to be used in boat-building for making angled stems, knees and keels, from the 1850s through to the Second World War. More recently, it has been used for woodturning and carving.

Pohutukawas are popular garden plants with plenty of new cultivars being sold through garden stores. A yellow-flowering pohutukawa is also found in the wild.

Pohutukawa: Threats and protection

Unfortunately, possums really like pohutukawa too and they’ve decimated plenty of it. Wild pigs, horses and cattle also pose a threat, as does lack of bird pollination. These animals are the secondary wave of threats to our beautiful native bush. A 1989 survey of came to the shocking conclusion that 90% of the original extent of pohutukawa forest had been cleared, mainly by fire from bush clearance. The coastal zone of New Zealand has received huge impact since people first arrived here between 500 and 1000 years ago.

Thankfully, New Zealanders have had enough and are fighting back. Trusts such as Project Crimson have been formed to help protect and replant coastal stands of pohutukawa. Crimson trails have been set-up to showcase the most stunning pohutukawa stands to locals and visitors throughout the country.  A range of resources are available from the Project Crimson website to help with replanting and research.

More information

Philip Simpson’s book Pohutukawa and Rata: New Zealand’s iron-hearted trees is the most comprehensive and beautiful source of information on these stunning trees. Buy it online from Manaaki Whenua Press or Amazon. You won’t be disappointed.

Project Crimson has an extensive annotated bibliography along with research links.

Other great links that I’ve found:

Metrosideros excelsa at the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network

Growing pohutukawa at Project Crimson

Pohutukawa as a traditional Maori rongoa (medicine) from Otago University

Amazing photo of a kaka in a yellow pohutukawa

Article about Project Crimson on


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December 2008
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