Tag Archives: pohutukawa

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.

Out and about today

The writing muse has forsaken me in recent weeks, hence the absence of new posts. Truth is, I have been gardening instead. But a trip to town today, camera in hand, made me focus my attention beyond the immediate confines of the garden. The purpose of the trip was dull enough – food – so I will ignore that.

IMG_6363IMG_6369I have been meaning to stop and photograph this watsonia growing wild down the road. Mark tells me it is a species but I have yet to put a name on it. The dusky apricot colouring appeals to me. Some may call these weeds but oh, when I compare these roadside plants to the ugliness and environmental unfriendliness of scorched, sprayed earth, all I can say is give me these weeds which make a contribution to the eco-system. It is such folly to think that spraying roadsides is desirable. All it does is to create a vacuum where less desirable weeds will re-colonise the area and, in the interim, all the water flows away, washing residual spray and road residues into our waterways. My column in the January issue of NZ Gardener is on the topic of roadside plantings. We often talk about this as we drive and we despair at the ugliness and the willy nilly use of weed spray in this country of ours. Clean and green New Zealand? Not in reality.


IMG_6381More cheerfully, the so-called Australian frangipani (Hymenosporum flavum) growing by the road halfway to town has been delighting me for several weeks. Many flowering trees are glorious on their day – but you can count their flowering season in days, rather than weeks. Not so this hymenosporum. It is not even a close relative of the frangipani, though it is scented. It needs frost free conditions to get established and good drainage but is worth growing for its late spring, early summer blooming.

IMG_6384IMG_6390I don’t swear on this blog (though I admit I am not so restrained in real life) so you will just have to fill in the missing letters when I describe this as an example of f*** off utility urban design. Clearly nobody wants to even try and grow plants here (and conditions would certainly be difficult to get anything established, let alone looking good), but could nobody come up with a filler idea that was less hostile than this?

IMG_7230I much prefer the old concrete and stone wall, constructed a long time ago in my local town of Waitara. Someone took a lot of care over this.

IMG_6400Pohutukawa! Often called the New Zealand Christmas tree. What a wonderful sight they are at this time of the year. As I looked at all the trees coming into bloom along New Plymouth’s water front, a mere two short blocks down from the main street, I felt a pang at the loss of 28 (or was it 29 in the end?) mature trees beside our Waitara River. I even contemplated making Christmas cards for all our Taranaki Regional Council elected officials and senior staff who were responsible for the casual removal of the trees. I thought it could feature the flowers on the front with a message inside saying “Seasons Greetings from the 29 Waitara pohutukawa chainsawed down this year”. But it is a lot of effort to go to for something they would just throw in the bin. Better instead to admire the beauty of trees still standing.

IMG_6401The public amenity planting in New Plymouth can be delightful and appropriate. On the exposed west coast, there are limited plant options that will grow right beside the sea. That is why the sturdy pohutukawa is so important. But also our native flaxes. They are in flower and how lovely do the flower spikes look silhouetted against the big sky and the big sea we get here?

IMG_6372Finally, coming home, I stopped to record the effective trimming of this Cupressus leylandii down the road. It was just an ordinary shelter belt until the lower canopy was recently lifted, exposing the trunks. The fact the branches have been trimmed reasonably flush helps but it adds a whole new dimension, being able to look through. It has turned an unmemorable shelter belt into something much more graceful and distinctive.

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.

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.