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.
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.
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.
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.