Project Crimson Trust

Project Crimson logo.

It’s a popular image of the New Zealand summer, when pohutukawa and rata are bursting with blossom. Yet by 1990 it was clear that these trees could become wiped out in some parts of the country. The Project Crimson Trust, in partnership with the Department of Conservation, was established to fight for their survival.

Project Crimson has made impressive progress re-establishing pohutukawa and rata nationwide by planting trees, coordinating and supporting a wide range of maintenance activities, scientific research, possum control programmes and public education. Community and volunteer support is vital to Project Crimson's success.

The Trust works with organisations, communities and individuals throughout New Zealand and assists them by providing funding and ecologically-sourced trees for local projects, through a funding application process each year.

By supporting and encouraging pohutukawa and rata conservation Project Crimson has seen more than 400,000 trees successfully established since 1990.

Project Crimson's vision

Enabling pohutukawa and rata to flourish again in their natural habitat as icons in the hearts and minds of all New Zealanders

Project Crimson’s goals:

  1. Support community and iwi pohutukawa and rata initiatives in medium/high-need areas 
  2. Partner major replenishment projects in high-need areas that have capacity for high impact in New Zealand and overseas 
  3. Build eco-sourced stock in high-need areas 
  4. Raise general awareness of and desire for action on tree protection and conservation amongst New Zealanders 
  5. Build awareness of the Project Crimson brand both in New Zealand and internationally 
  6. Become a benchmark organisational model which is adopted by international and local conservation/sustainability organisations.

New Zealand's Christmas tree

Pohutukawa flowers.
Pohutukawa flowers

The blazing red flowers of pohutukawa around Christmas time have earned this tree the title of New Zealand's Christmas tree. Pohutukawa and rata belong to the genus Metrosideros. In New Zealand, this genus is represented by two pohutukawa (mainland and Kermadec) and six species of rata vine, a related shrub, and three tree rata.

Mainland pohutukawa (M. excelsa) occurs naturally in the upper half of the North Island (north of New Plymouth and Gisborne) although it grows from one end of the country to the other. It is easily distinguished from rata by the hairs on the underside of the leaves.

One of New Zealand's tallest flowering trees, northern rata, (M. robusta) grows throughout North Island forests and extends south as far as Hokitika. It usually begins life as an epiphyte (perching plant) high in the forest canopy. As its roots descend to the ground, the rata eventually smothers its host, often leaving a "pseudo trunk" of coalesced roots.

Southern rata (M. umbellata) is the most widespread of all New Zealand rata. Areas where this species grows range from high Northland and Coromandel outcrops to subantarctic Auckland Islands where it forms the country's southernmost forests. The most dense display of southern rata occurs along the South Island's West Coast.

Bartlett's rata (M. bartletii) has white flowers and pale, papery bark, which make it unique among New Zealand rata. This species was discovered in a forest remnant near Cape Reinga in 1975 and is listed as endangered. Only 30 adult trees remain.

Sacred trees

Pohutukawa and rata hold a prominent place in Maori mythology. Legends tell of the young Maori warrior, Tawhaki and his attempt to find help in heaven to avenge his father's death. He subsequently fell to earth and the crimson flowers are said to represent his blood.

Possibly the most famous pohutukawa in Maori legend is a small, wind-beaten tree clinging to the cliff face near Cape Reinga. The 800-year-old tree is reputed to guard the entrance to a sacred cave through which disembodied spirits pass on their way to the next world. Rata was often respected for its immense size, which provided, among other things, shelter for weary travellers.

Under threat

While the fortunes of pohutukawa and rata have changed for the better since Project Crimson's formation, these trees are still threatened by the following:

  • The possum, with its voracious appetite for green leaves, buds and young shoots, eats many of these trees to death.
  • People damage trees by using their branches for firewood, lighting fires under them and parking cars on their roots.
  • Animals browse on young trees, and the forest under-storey that offers protection and nourishment.
  • Weeds and grasses often prevent regeneration by smothering young seedlings.

Applying for funding

Each year the Project Crimson Trust funds a wide range of projects involving New Zealand's rata and pohutukawa forests. Its aim is to help get these projects started and then to watch them flourish with local support. The funding is spread to ensure a good balance between pohutukawa and rata.

Past applicants include public organisations, community groups, conservation groups, individuals on private land (with a public value), marae groups and even sporting groups.

Projects must be able to demonstrate some public value, and must be focussed on the protection of pohutukawa and rata. Funding can be sought for possum and pest control work, research, pohutukawa and rata trees, fencing, general maintenance, propagation materials, weed control and other activities related to the protection and enhancement of the trees. 

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To find out how you can get involved in conservation activities near you, contact your local DOC office