Tag Archives: Metrosideros excelsa

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.

The New Zealand Christmas Tree (but not all are equal)

The story of a New Zealand Christmas is inextricably bound up with the annual blooming of our native pohutukawa trees – Metrosideros excelsa. Truth be told, they only occur naturally as far south as northern Taranaki where we live and Gisborne across the island, (but not in the middle where it is too cold for them). Fortunately, most of the country is happy to go with descriptor of the New Zealand Christmas tree.

The Legacy of the the Lazy Nurseryman. The flowers are more brown than red.

But not all pohutukawa are born equal. No sirree. As we drove to town a few days ago, Mark looked at the trees planted by a local farmer along the roadside and dubbed them the legacy of a lazy nurseryman. They were planted well and are growing well and the farmer has taken care of them, fencing them off from grazing stock and keeping them an attractive shape. The pity is that he (or she) was supplied with plants that flower more brown than red so they will never mature to the glory that could have been. The problem, Mark explains, is that some nurserymen are just too careless about where they gather seed and fail to select the best performing plants with the showiest colour.

Some flower abundantly but without great colour and some just don’t flower at all

Our local town of Waitara is like Pohutukawa Central – there are many (many, many) trees planted, at least in part because there aren’t a lot of options for trees that will grow in windy, exposed coastal conditions and be fairly bullet-proof (vandal-proof, really) as unprotected street trees. But not all those trees flower well. Some don’t flower at all, really, and some that do are patchy with undistinguished colours. It is called seedling variation. When you come across a tree that is covered in bloom and a clear red in colour, it just leaps out at you, visually speaking.

The vibrant tones of this specimen stood out from a considerable distance away

I felt I was channelling my late parents-in-law as I drove around Waitara yesterday, looking at different trees. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they systematically evaluated many of the trees around the river bank and surrounding streets, noting which were the best bloomers year after year and the best colours. At least three went on to be introduced commercially by Duncan and Davies Nursery. Somewhere in the family archives, I have some of Mark’s mother’s diary notes of those observations. They read something along the lines of: “Good bright red to the left of Mrs Markham’s house, 18 xxxxx Street”.  I am not sure if they also measured the length of the flowering season though they did record which ones flowered well every year, rather than every second or random years.  There are so many handsome trees in the wider area here that it had not really occurred to me until very recently that the flowering season is but short – probably only ten days at peak. Ephemeral, I saw it described as recently. It is just that those ten days are in the lead-up to Christmas and a good tree is a show-stopper for that time. Not unlike the Japanese cherries, when you think about it. They too have a very brief peak season but an entire festival celebration has evolved around those days.

I took this photo out of the car window (Mark was driving) as we went through a busy intersection in New Plymouth. It is clearly a named selection and superior from the start

The lesson to all this is that if you are only going to buy one or a few pohutukawa, buy named varieties which will have been produced by cuttings so they will be identical to the parent. If you are going to buy quite a few, at least select a reputable nursery who can tell you what the seed source was. If they can’t tell you that, forget it. If you are going to raise your own from seed, start with the best flowering specimens. Pohutukawa don’t grow true from seed so you will get seedling variation in the offspring but if you start with the best parent, the proportion of good offspring you raise will be much higher.

If you are wondering about raising your own plants from cuttings, it isn’t at all easy to get them to root unless you start with juvenile material (from a young tree or one that has been kept pruned hard, not big old established specimens with lots of woody growth). If you are going to go down the route of raising your own material, get out and record now which trees have flowered all over the plant and in a good, clear red shade. It takes a commitment of time and effort to raise your own plants and it just seems a waste if you end up with murky, brownish flowers or worse, one that doesn’t flower at all.

Personally, we are not convinced by the Kermadec pohutukawa (Metrosideros kermadecensis). It is a different species and rather smaller growing and often sold as more desirable because of that compact habit and its extended flowering season. Yes, you will get flowers over months, but you only get a few flowers at any one time and the whole thing about the pohutukawa is that beautiful mass of bloom around Christmas. Ditto the yellow forms of M. excelsa. Yes, they are really pretty and they have an interesting botanical history of their own but they won’t give you the wham-bang mass display of the New Zealand Christmas tree.

Just choose good ones if you plan to plant any.

Rata and pohutukawa – the metrosideros family

Pohutakawa, maybe Scarlet Pimpernel, in Hamilton on Christmas Day (photo: Michael Jeans)

Pohutakawa, maybe Scarlet Pimpernel, in Hamilton on Christmas Day (photo: Michael Jeans)

I have to start with a touch of mea culpa. I will never misspell pohutukawa again. It had never even occurred to me that I did not know how to spell it correctly. See, I had a Dunedin childhood and in the deep south, we probably had rata on our spelling lists rather than pohutukawa. At least that is my story. My only consolation in the matter is that my misspelling of the Maori name for Metrosideros excelsa apparently escaped the notice of everyone else involved with the production of the paper I write for, so I was not alone. But I was probably alone with my embarrassment. In case you missed it last Friday (before I corrected the website post), I turned the second u into an a.

As a peace offering, I give you a photo of a lovely pohutukawa in full flower at Millenium Heights in Flagstaff, Hamilton. The owner, Bronwyn, tells me it was meant to be a dwarf but it is already three metres high and it flowers profusely every year. When she said it was meant to be a dwarf, I thought initially that it might be one of the Kermadec pohutukawa (M. kermadecensis) which is sometimes used as a smaller selection – though only relatively smaller. However, I ruled that out because the Raoul Island pohutukawa flowers intermittently all year in dribs and drabs and it does not put on a mass display as shown. Added to that, it is more frost tender so it is never going to be happy in inland Hamilton. It is more likely to be a selection of the common form, M. excelsa. In fact it may even be the one named Scarlet Pimpernel (which was selected by my late father-inlaw). There is considerable variation within this species. If you start looking at trees you see over the next couple of weeks, you will pick huge variation in colour. Some look almost rusty brown from a distance, some deep red. The ones that stand out in the landscape tend to have orange tones to the colouring which gives vibrancy. It is called seedling variation – they don’t grow identical from seed. To get an exact clone of the parent, you have to propagate by cuttings.

The yellow pohutukawa are sometimes seen as a novelty. They are pretty enough in their own way but to my eyes they are nowhere near as spectacular as a good red specimen. The yellows are just another seedling variant of the same species, most common on Motiti Island. The reason you see them in mainland gardens and public plantings is because Duncan and Davies Nursery produced them commercially some decades ago – always the quest for the different and the new. It was that quest that also saw variegated forms offered for sale. These are not my favourite. I am not a great fan of variegated plants so I am unconvinced that a variegated form of our iconic pohutukawa was ever going to be an improvement on the usual forms in the wild. But because they were seen as different and new, they sold well for a while and there are big specimens around.

M. excelsa grows naturally as far south as Poverty Bay in the east and North Taranaki in the west. The pohutukawa that grows and flowers in the top of the South Island is a different species, M. parkinsonii. It tends to be rather more scruffy in its habit of growth.

The rata does not just go up, it goes along in every which way

The rata does not just go up, it goes along in every which way

It is of course the rata that is to the South Island what the pohutakawa is to the North Island, though we do have the northern rata as well. These are all the same family (so all metrosideros) but different species. Think of them being like cousins, perhaps. So the South Island rata is M. umbellata and the North Island rata is M. robusta. It is the latter that starts life as an epiphyte, living on a host tree that will ultimately die. The rata sends down roots that eventually reach the ground and develop into a strong vine. Over time, the vinous roots fuse together to form what looks like a trunk (called a psuedotrunk) so, by the time the host tree is strangled, dies and rots away, the rata can hold itself up. We have this rata here in the garden and we find that it does not just go up the host trees, not at all. In an hospitable garden woodland situation, there is little holding it back as it attempts to take over the entire area. I have to have words with it about its smothering ways. There is a limit to how much ground cover we want. Besides it only flowers on the tops and even then is but a shadow of the magnificent display the pohutukawa put on.

The southern rata is less determinedly epiphytic and can establish itself on its own roots in conditions which vary from nearly sub alpine to wet coastal forest. I recall as a child the excitement expressed by adults at the flowering of the rata in the wild, but it tends to be more a haze of red than an in-your-eye statement of summer and Christmas as with the pohutukawa. Unfortunately rampant possums have destroyed much of the impact of the southern rata in bloom.

Of the family, it is the good red pohutukawa or M. excelsa that remains my firm favourite.

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