Pōhutukawa trees

Pōhutukawa trees

The pōhutukawa 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 a 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 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 pōhutukawa as the ‘Settlers Christmas tree’ and ‘Antipodean holly’.

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

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

Pōhutukawa and its cousin rata also hold a prominent place in Māori tradition. Legends tell of Tāwhaki, a young 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 pōhutukawa on the windswept clifftop at Cape Rēinga, near the northernmost tip of New Zealand, is of great significance to many New Zealanders. For Māori this small tree is known as ‘the place of leaping’. It is from here that the spirits of the dead begin their return journey to their traditional homeland of Hawaiki. The spirits leap off the headland and climb down the roots of the 800-year-old tree, descending into the underworld.

Community contributions

39 comments have been posted about Pōhutukawa trees

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Posted: 18 Mar 2009

Hi Thanks for info!!!!!


Posted: 12 Mar 2009

hello i've got a pohutukawa tree that blosemed in late december! I do not know what to do


Posted: 09 Mar 2009

Hi to those who are interested in pohutukawa's. Tricia Aspin has written a book called 'Maioro to Manukau Heads' A botanical journey through the Awhitu District. There is a chapter and photos and details of several of NZ largest Pohutukawa and others which are to be found in this district.Awhitu is also known as the Manukau Peninsula with Waiuku being its town. Book is of 209 pages with colour photos.Foreword by Ewen.K.Cameron.Curator of Botany, Auckland War Memorial Museum. excellent reviews and sells for $45+postage


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


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?


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


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?


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