The New Zealand Christmas Tree

Pohutukawa Blossoms at Awhitu Regional Park, Auckland, New Zealand

Mark Meredith/Getty Images

The pohutukawa (botanical name Metrosideros excelsa) is New Zealand's best-known and most visible native tree. It is found virtually everywhere along the coastline of the upper half of the North Island, north of an approximate line from Gisborne to New Plymouth and in isolated pockets around Rotorua, Wellington and the top of the South Island. It has also been introduced into parts of Australia, South Africa, and California.

A Versatile Tree

The tree has a remarkable ability to cling to steep cliffs and hillsides and grow in other seemingly impossible locations (there is even a grove of pohutukawa trees on the active volcano island of White Island in the Bay of Plenty). It is closely related to another New Zealand native tree, the rata.

Translated from Maori, pohutukawa means "sprinkled by spray", which is an obvious reference to the fact that it is usually found along the seashore.

In addition to providing welcome shade for beachgoers in the New Zealand summer, the blaze of crimson flowers it produces from November to January has given the pohutukawa the label the "New Zealand Christmas Tree". Certainly, for generations of kiwis, the flowering pohutukawa is one of the great symbols of the Christmas holiday season. There are in fact several varieties of pohutukawa, producing a range of colored flowers, from scarlet to peach. The tree is also notable for its erratic flowering; different parts of the same tree may flower at slightly different times.

In recent years the pohutukawa has been under threat from predators, particularly the possum. This nocturnal animal was introduced from Australia in the nineteenth century and has caused major devastation to New Zealand forests. As it does with other trees, the possum feeds on the leaves of the pohutukawa, stripping it bare. Major efforts are underway to reduce possum numbers but they remain a constant threat.

The World's Largest Pohutukawa Tree

At Te Araroa on the east coast of the North Island, just over 170km from Gisborne, is a very special pohutukawa. It is the largest known pohutukawa tree in the world. It stands more than 21 meters tall and at its widest point is 40 meters in diameter. The tree is named "Te-Waha-O-Rerekohu" by local Maori and is estimated to be well over 350 years old. The name comes from the name of a local chief, Rerekohu, who lived in this area.

This pohutukawa stands in the grounds of the local school, close to the beachfront of the town. It is very visible from the road and is a "must see" on the tour around the East Cape from Opotiki to Gisborne. It is also not far from the East Cape lookout and lighthouse, which sit on the most easterly point in New Zealand.

Perhaps the best-known pohutukawa tree in New Zealand is at the cliff edge of the country's northernmost point, Cape Reinga. This place is of great spiritual significance to the Maori people. Known as the "place of leaping", this is, according to Maori belief, where at death the spirit starts it's journey to Hawaiki, their traditional homeland.

The pohutukawa is not seen much outside New Zealand. Interestingly, however, a pohutukawa tree is at the center of some controversy which suggests Captain Cook may not have been the first European to have landed in New Zealand. In La Corunna, a coastal city in the northwest of Spain, there is a large pohutukawa which the locals believe is nearly 500 years old. If that is the case it predates Cook's arrival in New Zealand in 1769. Other experts believe however that the tree may only be 200 years old. Whatever its age, the tree has, in fact, become the city's floral emblem.

Wherever else you go in the upper North Island, the pohutukawa is a prevalent and distinctive feature of the New Zealand coastline. And if you're here around Christmas you will see its wonderful flowers.

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