Pohutukawa trees

The pohutukawa tree (Metrosideros excelsa) with its crimson flower has become an established part of the New Zealand Christmas tradition. This iconic Kiwi Christmas tree, which often features on greeting cards and in poems and songs, has become an important symbol for New Zealanders at home and abroad.

In 1833 the missionary Henry Williams described holding service under a ‘wide spreading pohutukawa’. The first known published reference to the pohutukawa as a Christmas tree came in 1857 when ‘flowers of the scarlet Pohutukawa, or “Christmas tree”’ formed part of table decorations at a feast put on by Ngāpuhi leader Eruera Patuone. Several years later Austrian geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter noted that settlers referred to it as such. The pohutukawa, he observed, ‘about Christmas … are full of charming … blossoms’; ‘the settler decorates his church and dwellings with its lovely branches’. Other 19th-century references described the pohutukawa tree as the ‘Settlers Christmas tree’ and ‘Antipodean holly’.

In 1941 army chaplain Ted Forsman composed a pohutukawa carol in which he made reference to ‘your red tufts, our snow’. Forsman was serving in the Libyan Desert at the time, hardly the surroundings normally associated with the image of a fiery red pohutukawa tree. Many of his fellow New Zealanders, though, would have instantly identified with the image.

Today many school children sing about how ‘the native Christmas tree of Aotearoa’ fills their hearts ‘with aroha’.

Pohutukawa and its cousin rata also hold a prominent place in Maori tradition. Legends tell of Tawhaki, a young Maori warrior, who attempted to find heaven to seek help in avenging the death of his father. He fell to earth and the crimson flowers are said to represent his blood.

A gnarled, twisted pohutukawa on the windswept cliff top at Cape Reinga, the northern tip of New Zealand, has become of great significance to many New Zealanders. For Maori this small, venerated pohutukawa is known as ‘the place of leaping’. It is from here that the spirits of the dead begin their journey to their traditional homeland of Hawaiki. From this point the spirits leap off the headland and climb down the roots of the 800-year-old tree, descending into the underworld on their return journey.

Community contributions

35 comments have been posted about Pohutukawa trees

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admin

Posted: 06 Mar 2009

Hi Chavez It seems to have been adopted as our Xmas tree because it comes into bloom around Xmas time and the crimson colour reminded people of the flowers of the traditional Xmas holly plant. It was named by Maori before European settlement. According to the Oxford Dictionary of New Zealand English the earliest written reference was in the 1820 NZ Grammar and Vocabulary by Lee and Kendall - here it was spelt, 'Poutu kaua' Jamie Mackay

chavez

Posted: 06 Mar 2009

hello..... i have a topic question relating to your web site! why is the pohutukawa tree the new zealand christmas tree? who named it the pohutukawa tree?

Josh

Posted: 21 Jan 2009

Hello I have a related question. I live on the NSW coast about 100kms north of Sydney and have about 6 miniature pohutukawas (NZ Christmas trees) growing in my garden. They were planted about 5 years ago and are doing very well but steadfastly refuse to flower. They look as though they are going to bud but never quite make it which is very disappointing. Should I be doing something to encourage the flowering process? Thanks in anticipation.

Ross MacKay

Posted: 24 Dec 2008

Just before Christmas Day 2008 I was walking with friends along the Sumner Beach foreshore, and, as usual I had my camera with me. I saw and photographed a yellow pohutukawa. This is not the first I have seen and I wonder if you have any information qbout it, for, as we all know the colour of the pohutukawa id usually a crimson red.

Carl Walrond

Posted: 16 Dec 2008

Hi Sharon, Occasionally they develop yellow flowers - just natural variation. A variety growing on Motiti Island has yellow flowers and cuttings have been taken from trees there. Your plant may have been descended from this stock as pohutukawa do not grow naturally south of East Cape or Taranaki. There is variation in pohutukawa flower colours with some having pinkish and orange hues. Info here: http://www.tcdc.govt.nz/NR/rdonlyres/638827D7-7F10-44BA-A809-7A2BB7CBA891/31882/TairuaTreeMasterplan2005.pdf http://www.teara.govt.nz/TheBush/NativePlantsAndFungi/TallBroadleafTrees/3/ENZ-Resources/Standard/1/2/en#breadcrumbtop They can flower from November into January - mainly December so nothing unusual there. Males or females? Whoah no idea. I'm no botanist but I had a look and it appears that the flowers have both female and male stages - they are hermaphrodites. http://www.botany.hawaii.edu/faculty/wong/Bot602/Schmidt-Adam.pdf Cheers

Sharon

Posted: 16 Dec 2008

At my flat in Wellington, we were wondering why our pohutukawa had not yet flowered in mid December. Well, it just started to flower, but not crimson as we expected, but a pretty daffodil yellow! Do you know anything about this varietal and we would like to know if the tree is a male or female - is there a way to tell?

Nicole

Posted: 21 Nov 2008

Hi there I am year five student from chilton st james and, i am doing an inquiry on the pohutukawa tree. I was wondering if you could tell me afew facts about the pohutukawa tree Thanks for everything Nicole Wester

admin

Posted: 20 Aug 2008

Hi Bob - this explanation from Te Ara should help. It is from the entry on the Waikato people - a Maori iwi (tribe): 'When the [Tainui] canoe arrived at Kawhia, it was tied to a pohutukawa tree named Tangi-te-korowhiti. It was finally pulled ashore at a point called Rangiahua, and is buried behind the present-day marae of Maketu, near Kawhia township. Following the Tainui’s arrival the commander, Hoturoa, established a place of learning called Te Ahurei.' Read more here Cheers Jamie Mackay

Bob Williams

Posted: 20 Aug 2008

On my visit to New Zealand we stayed in Kawhia, where there is a pohutakawa tree that is said to be the one to which the first Polynesians (Mauri?) tied their long boat (which is buried there). Its name, as best as I can remember it, is Tangi te Korofiti. It seems that this would be a good addition to your already excellent article, (after correcting any mistakes in this comment). The date of arrival and the age of this particular specimen would be of interest also.

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