Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree…

The pohutukawa - often called the NZ Christmas tree

The pohutukawa - often called the NZ Christmas tree

Ah, the Christmas tree. I was a little amused by a comment on Twitter from somebody that their potted pohutukawa had arrived but was considerably smaller than they had expected so their decorations were now placed beside it. Somebody else posted a photo of their potted karaka tree festooned in gold tinsel, Christmas balls and lights. It looked odd, but logic says it is no odder than adorning a pine tree in similar fashion.

Some brand the pohutukawa as the New Zealand Christmas tree. Living near the coast as I do, pohutukawa feature very strongly in the landscape. They obligingly flower at Christmas, lighting up the landscape. But of course there are large parts of New Zealand where they don’t grow or aren’t needed and residents there may well question the seasonal accolades bestowed upon it. When I say they don’t grow, the problem is that this special tree is not overly hardy. Indeed it is distinctly frost tender when juvenile. If you look at the distribution, it is largely coastal because disturbed air flows from the sea prevent frosts. Head just five or more kilometres inland and it can be too cold for them.

The other aspect of pohutukawa is that they are a wonderfully obliging and resilient coastal tree, putting up with salt laden wind and making enormous buttress roots to hold back the ravages of coastal erosion. They will grow where most other trees struggle badly, defoliate and die. Our coastal areas would be barren wastelands without them. Once you move to more sheltered areas inland, you have a much larger palette of trees to choose from so the tough pohutukawa might not be the tree of first choice. So for those of us who live in coastal areas from about the lower middle of the North Island upwards, the pohutukawa is our New Zealand Christmas tree but there will be New Zealanders who have never seen one in flower.

Did some not make the grade in years past? A commercial grower's roadside field. Spot the two that have never been clipped

Did some not make the grade in years past? A commercial grower's roadside field. Spot the two that have never been clipped

For others, it has to be said the common old pine tree is more likely to deserve the award. Many people do not realise it is in fact native to California – it grows wild in a limited area of the Monterey Peninsula. But I think we could probably crown this country as the Pinus radiata capital of the world and certainly other countries don’t tend to use the humble pine as a Christmas tree. The handsome abies family are the favoured tree in Europe, particularly A. procera and A. nordmanniana, and these are so much slower growing that there are good grounds for raising eyebrows at the environmental vandalism of severing them to become temporary frames for Christmas lights. At least Pinus radiata grows so quickly in this country that it is more or less disposable. It also clips very well and if you buy a cut tree from a commercial grower, you should get a well shaped specimen with shorter needles. We were always into gathering wildlings, though the children would have liked better shaped specimens when they were young. They used to bewail the unbalanced shapes, the scruffy branches and the extra bits tied in to pad out particularly sparse areas.

Should you contemplate a growing Christmas tree in a pot as a last minute green alternative, you need to factor in three aspects. A large tree has a correspondingly large root system and is damned heavy. Don’t expect a living tree of two metres plus unless you have a small fork lift. It then takes a fair amount of skill to keep large plants healthy for an entire year so thinking you can keep your living Christmas tree and reuse it in future years may not be entirely practical. You are far more likely to have a moth eaten looking specimen with dead patches, badly root bound and hungry come next December. Thirdly, should you have purchased a living tree with a view to planting it out in the New Year, make sure you harden it off slowly to the bright sunlight when you bring it outdoors, saturate the root ball before planting and keep watering the poor thing all summer. But above all, choose the site carefully. Most living Christmas trees are forest giants in their infancy. They are not generally suitable candidates for suburban gardens, even less so if you are planting one a year.

The grapevine version

The grapevine version

If you are still determined to try a live option for the future, take a look at our native matai and start clipping and training it early.

If the live Christmas tree is an ethical option based on concerns about the abject waste of severing a tree in its prime to adorn your house for two short weeks, it would probably be kinder to the environment to stick to the disposable pine tree or go for the reusable option. As a family which shuns the horrors of the tinsel Christmas tree, I am hoping my efforts with the woven grapevine pyramid will be greeted by the returning adult children today as an acceptable alternative.

Merry Christmas everyone and best wishes for a safe and happy festive season.

First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.

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2 thoughts on “Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree…

  1. Bronwyn Moffat

    Hi Abbie, was curious to read your article after Michael’s enthusiasm taking the photos of our tree which is such a wonderful colour this year. It is suppose to be a dwarf but has reached 3 metres already and has flowered each year I think that we have had it. It’s been in maybe 7 years now. One day I plan to get down to visit Tikorangi. All the best for the year ahead. Bronwyn

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