Of pohutukawa and pineapples

The pohutukawa - often called the NZ Christmas tree

The pohutukawa - often called the NZ Christmas tree

The cold spring is still having an impact. I say this because the pohutukawa flowering is late this year, probably by at least two weeks. Hardly the New Zealand Christmas tree – more like the mid January tree, where we live at least.

Mark and I drove around looking at the pohuts (as we tend to call them) in Waitara which are well worth a visit at the moment. Waitara would be a bleak little town without these splendid trees. We felt a bit like Mark’s parents reincarnated. For years, Felix and Mimosa would make forays around the pohutukawa plantings and keep records on particularly heavy flowering specimens and good coloured ones. Mark could still recall certain trees – number six along such and such an avenue, or the one outside Mrs So and So’s place. Felix and Mimosa knew them all.

We were not so meticulous, but certainly three aspects made a big impression. The first was what a splendid tree they are for coastal areas and what a joy to behold in flower. The second aspect was a bouquet to the District Council who finally got around to limbing up and cleaning up underneath the trees which line the river. They look hugely better for it.

The Waitara riverbanks are also home to the oldest yellow pohutakawa on the mainland

The Waitara riverbanks are also home to the oldest yellow pohutakawa on the mainland

The third aspect was the variation in colour. As landscape trees, not all pohutukawa are born equal. Their flowers may look lovely en masse, close up. But from a distance, rather a lot of them are distinctly brown in tonings. The stand out trees were those with rich red flowers, or those which had an orange tone to them. The orange lifts the colour considerably when viewed from further away. Funnily enough, the dark flowered forms tend to be later flowering.

The moral of this particular story is that if you are going to buy pohutukawa plants, it is worthwhile seeking out either named clones or plants from an identified seed source of good colour. One might as well start with better selections. If you plan on gathering your own seed, identify a good specimen now and return around mid May to collect the seed. Growing selected seed increases your chances of keeping good colour, although there will be variation. Partly as a result of Felix and Mimosa’s study of the Waitara pohutukawa, Duncan and Davies put out a good range of named selections. “Rata Maid” and “Scarlet Pimpernel” are still growing in Waitara. Up north, Graham Platt also selected good forms along with Jack Hobbs, including one called “Brilliance”.

Pohutukawa are tough trees and while they can get wide, they don’t get particularly tall. They can withstand most assaults except for frost when young and vicious attacks with injected weedkiller. If you cut a tree back hard to ground level, it will sprout again. And they will take heavy pruning. Cutting away all the growth from the base exposes their interesting trunk and branch structure and allows views through the tree. They don’t have to be dense, impenetrable visual barriers. They can be a flowering canopy with an interesting structure beneath. And the prunings are brilliant firewood.

We happened to be in Patea over the weekend and their pohutakuwa were also a real feature in the town. Many of them appeared to be of about the same age and are therefore likely to be from the same seed batch so they are not quite as varied as the Waitara plantings. Alas both these small towns suffer from the same problem of overhead power lines. If these were underground, the trees could grow without the heavy mutilation of top pruning some get subjected to on frequent occasions. That pruning does not do much for the appearance of the trees. Bottom pruning is good. Top pruning can be butchery.

On another topic, we had an amusing discussion with London daughter home for a holiday. In her travels around this country visiting friends, she had got into a conversation with somebody about an exciting new red pineapple which is being widely marketed. She just about fell off her chair when we told her that it was none other than the pineapple which grows beside our garage and which has been growing there for about 40 years or more since her grandfather imported it. Or so we understand. A northern nurseryman had visited and bought a plant from us. Sure that he had uncovered treasure which we didn’t appreciate, he put it into tissue culture to multiply it quickly and has been marketing it nationally as an exciting new release which is “cold tolerant, extremely hardy and easy to grow.”

Have we got news for him. It might be easy in Northland (and pineapples are just bromeliads so they are pretty easy in the right conditions) but hardy it ain’t (unless compared with the tropical pineapple) and it sure won’t be that rewarding in less than ideal conditions. I imagine he will get many letters from areas south of the Bombay Hills querying his claims. I can’t think that it will be a great success growing in Christchurch or Invercargill, for example, or indeed anywhere inland. In our books, cold tolerant and extremely hardy means it will grow in Tekapo and Turangi. If you have bought one of these pineapples, it will need the hottest position you can find in full sun. We find its fruit producing capacity is pretty hit and miss and it is an ornamental curiosity rather than the taste treat of the decade.

Pineapples are gross feeders. Our elderly plant is a pretty large clump. It needs thinning, which, because it is spiky and intimidating, does not happen often. You need leather gloves to handle it. The season that Mark thinned the clump and fed it well, it responded beautifully by putting on a splendid crop of fruit which are decidedly ornamental, but in our conditions they tend to rot before ripening properly. As Mark is big fresh pineapple fan, we still buy them from the supermarket.