From the nurseryman’s pen – the yellow pohutukawa

Metrosideros excelsa aurea

The much more common red Metrosideros excelsa

The yellow pohutukawa are flowering in my home town of Waitara. Metrosideros aurea. This is not without a tinge of sadness because the four biggest and best specimens on the bank of the Waitara River were felled – in our opinion unnecessarily – by a stubborn regional council despite a strong community effort to try and save them.

The letter reproduced this year in NZ Gardener

I have written about the yellow pohutukawa before, but my interest was piqued by a 1968 letter reproduced in the September issue of the New Zealand Gardener magazine. The letter writer was Victor Davies, who headed the powerhouse nursery Duncan and Davies and who was responsible for introducing the tree to mainland New Zealand by putting it into commercial production. I think we can take the letter as the most accurate historical record of that process.

It is interesting reading it 50 years later and realising how much times and attitudes have changed. The tone is a bit redolent of the old blankets, beads and muskets method employed by early colonialists to get down on treasures held by indigenous people. That is not a criticism of Sir Victor. It is just the way things were done.

A surviving yellow pohutukawa in Waitara

Sir Victor heard about the tree and was greatly interested because all the known pohutukawa on the mainland were shades of red. He could see the commercial potential of a yellow one so he tried repeatedly to get plant material. He thought he was successful when he managed to get somebody to send him scion wood. When the plants flowered five or six years later, they were all red. This may not be a surprise to many of us. In his own words, “After complaining, the reply I had was that as the tree was tapu they would never get any more material for me.” Personally, I think he was lucky to get a reply but his use of the word ‘tapu’ back in 1968 was interesting because not many Maori words had been incorporated in New Zealand English back then. ‘Tapu’ translates, more or less, to sacred. The yellow pohutukawa were a taonga – a sacred treasure to the original people of the land.

Undeterred, Sir Victor kept trying. Through a third party, a ‘friendly’ Maori was found who supplied material for twelve grafts – six red and six yellow. Allegedly, supplying the mix of red and yellow scions circumvented the tapu restrictions. Hmmm. Pretty dodgy, that.

Sir Victor goes on to say that they raised many thousands of seed and they all flowered true to type without any variation so the yellow form was deduced to be a stable species. I am sure the nursery would have sold thousands of plants too but not a single cent would have been returned to the original owners of the sacred tree.

The red pohutukawa make better landscape trees but the yellow is certainly an interesting variant, plus power lines

Some of those trees were planted in Waitara, the closest town to Duncan and Davies Nursery and the surviving plants are what I photographed yesterday. Victor Davies was renowned for many traits, amongst them his remarkable sales ability. And the 1968 letter is headed “The Golden Pohutukawa” and he describes the flower colour as “dull gold”. There is a marketing ploy. Not gold, pretty lemon yellow. It is certainly lovely viewed close up but it doesn’t show out in the landscape as do the more common red forms, Metrosideros excelsa.

Christmas is coming and the red pohutukawa are widely known as the New Zealand Christmas tree.

15 thoughts on “From the nurseryman’s pen – the yellow pohutukawa

  1. Patricia Deveraux

    I agree that the classic red pohutukawa shows up better in the landscape, rather like the classic rata as opposed to the white. But the SIZE of that yellow pohutukawa at Waitara!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      The four riverside yellows that regional council chose to remove were the original plants, so of similar stature. Destroyed with no qualms.

      1. Joan Beaumont

        This is so unbelievable that in this day and age councils can and will still stubbornly cut down mature healthy aged beautiful trees. What is their mentality on this and I wonder who makes the decisions? They tell us to plant more trees for a healthy environment then disregard their own advice.It makes my heart bleed now that those amazing trees are gone forever.

      2. Abbie Jury Post author

        The swansong of an ageing engineer carrying out his last contract. He would have liked to have removed ALL the trees (about 112 of them, from memory) and established the river as a man-made canal to the sea. Fortunately such dinosaurs will die out.

  2. Paddy Tobin

    A gardening friend, an Englishman who moved to Ireland some years back, always jokes how we describe yellow plants as “gold”. Perhaps, there is a little of the salesman in us or just that we are prone to exaggeration and embellishment. Nonetheless the golden pohutukawa is a fabulously beautiful plant.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Don’t even get me started on the hyperbole of plant descriptions. When the faintest, elusive hint of scent becomes ‘fragrant’, when heights are deliberately understated (‘nobody would buy them if they knew how tall they can grow’) – after decades in the industry, we have seen most of the tricks.

  3. Ray

    Interesting, just proves how obsessed to collectors can become rather than racism but times change.
    What shocked me was the question about mixing DDT and a fungicide spray on the other page. The dangers of DDT were becoming apparent by then but gardeners of the world trundled on.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Not racism, I think. More colonialism. And yes, the chemical gardener generation has a lot to answer for! When Mark’s dad died, we had to sort out the back shed and that was an eye-wateringly toxic experience.

  4. tonytomeo

    Some of the old New Zealand Christmas trees in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco are surprisingly big. I mean, it sort of concerns me that some grown as street trees elsewhere could eventually get so big. They are popular on the coast because they do so well there, where most trees would get disfigured by the wind. I happen to like the red color, but yellow would be a better color for some applications. It seems to me that they are all about the same shade of red here.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      We have quite a bit of colour variation in the reds – all hues from brights to orange reds to browns. But the yellows show very little variation. They take really hard pruning and limbing up so can at least be managed as street trees. The really old trees round here are indeed huge though more in spread than height.

      1. tonytomeo

        When we studied them in school, we learned that the color is variable, like that of the red ironbark eucalyptus. However, I have never seen it. I suspect that they are grown from cuttings rather than from seed. I do not know. I have never grown them.

      2. Abbie Jury Post author

        In the wild, they spread by seed, of course. In commercial production, it is better to have a clonal selection to stabilise the product. For every brilliant seedling that is raised, there are probably 50 average ones and 20 that downright inferior.

      3. tonytomeo

        Some of the eucalyptus had been like that, but now, the younger Eucalyptus sideroxylon all seem to be the same color too. I do not know how they would be grown vegetatively, but they seem to be.

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