New Zealand's Christmas tree
The blazing red flowers of pōhutukawa around Christmas time have earned this tree the title of New Zealand's Christmas tree. Pōhutukawa and rātā belong to the genus Metrosideros. In New Zealand, this genus is represented by two pōhutukawa (mainland and Kermadec), six species of rātā vine, a related shrub, and three tree rātā.
Mainland pōhutukawa (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 rātā by the hairs on the underside of the leaves.
Pōhutukawa and rātā 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 pōhutukawa 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.
Rātā was often respected for its immense size, which provided, among other things, shelter for weary travellers.
Pōhutukawa and rātā are 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.
DOC partnered with Project Crimson in 1990, at a time when up to 90% of coastal pōhutukawa stands were gone.
Since then, more than 300,000 native trees have been planted, with a focus on pōhutukawa and rātā. These well known New Zealand trees now have a better outlook but still need our help to protect them.