New Zealand Christmas Tree

The pohutukawa or New Zealand Christmas Tree, metsiderosis excelsa, is one of the most outstanding plants of the entire New Zealand flora. A tougher or more adaptable coastal tree would be hard to find, for the pohutukawa will gain a foothold in the most inhospitable of rock crevices where continual lashings of salt-laden winds and drenchings of salt water are the norm, and life giving fresh water and nutrients are scarce in the extreme.

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Pohutukawa and Rata: New Zealand's Iron-hearted Trees Know Your New Zealand Trees Introducing New Zealand Trees: a Guide Identifying Common Trees in New Zealand Eagles Complete Trees and Shrubs of New Zealand ( 2 Vol boxed set)  
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Where the rocky coastal cliffsides of its northern habitat are particularly barren the pohutukawa grows as a solitary species, perching on seemingly impossible sites with its long trailing roots seeking a foothold amongst the rocks. Where conditions are less severe the typical coastal forest of northern New Zealand consists mainly of karaka, kohekohe and puriri, in association with pohutukawa which is usually the dominant tree. in these mixed coastal forests the pohutukawa can grow into a spreading tree 20, metres or more in height, yet on very exposed rock faces where conditions are extremely barren it will at times grow little more than one metre, but will still flower profusely.

The leaves of the pohutukawa are thick and tough, a shiny dark green on top and silvery white on their softer undersides. The flowers are well known to most New Zealanders, as the pohutukawa is a popular garden tree in all milder areas of the country. The spectacular dark crimson flowers occur just before Christmas and the flowering period extends well into January. The first settlers used pohutukawa blossom to decorate their homes at Christmas time, regarding it as a New Zealand substitute for holly, and it was they who first applied the now common name of Christmas tree.

Featured Artworks (prints available, click below)

Diana Adams Pohutukawa prints Pohutukawa Bay Koru Print

The pohutukawa was used for more than just decoration by the early pioneers. The potential of its strong durable timber for ship building was soon realized, and in the early days of colonization shiploads of pohutukawa timber were exported, severely depleting the magnificent stands of trees which at one time dominated the northern coasts. The leaves and bark of the pohutukawa were utilized for a variety of medicinal purposes by the Maori people, and many an early settler drank a decoction of inner bark of the pohutukawa tree to cure dysentery.

The pohutukawas tolerance of extreme coastal conditions makes it an ideal choice for coastal planting. Its beauty means that it is favoured for planting in many situations where less hardy trees could be grown, but the pohutukawa is favoured because of its handsomeness. It is an amazingly adaptable tree and will thrive in almost any conditions.

Pohutukawa Flower Te Waha O Rere Kohu Te AraroaBy Roadside at Te KahaPohutukawa Tunnel at Waiotahi
Click To Enlarge

1. Pohutukawa Blossom
2. Te Waha O Rere Kohu Te Araroa An ancient Pohutukawa tree growing at Te Araroa, with it's 22 trunks, said to be the biggest in New Zealand, and 600+ yrs old.
3. Tree by the Roadside at Te Kaha
4. Pohutukawa Tunnel at Waiotahi

An excerpt from "Gardening with New Zealand Plants Shrubs and Trees", by Fisher/Satchel/Watkins. Pub Collins, 1970.


Christmas tree Maori name, Pohutukawa

Metrosideros, from Greek, meaning ironwood, alluding to the hardness of the timber: excelsa, Latin, to raise, exalt.

We would not be human if we did not have likes and dislikes. In my case I have to admit a certain weakness as far as the pohutukawa is concerned.

To see it covered in scarlet blossom, spreading its branches over the water's edge, is a sight never to be forgotten. What an extraordinary tree it is. On coasts that are very exposed, the pohutukawa could be described as a much branched, spreading shrub - at times almost procumbent - its long, twisted roots reaching out over the rocky cliffs searching for a foothold and its branches swept by the salt spray. Oysters have even been found on branches which are apparently submerged during high tide.

Under more conventional conditions, the same tree is capable of reaching a height of 70 feet. This is when great bunches of dark red, fibrous rootlets may be seen hanging from the boughs. There are excellent examples of this to be seen along the King Edward Parade at Devonport, Auckland.

The natural habitat of the pohutukawa extends from North Cape to Poverty Bay on the east coast and Urenui, on the west. In Flora of New Zealand by Allan, it is also stated to be inland on the shores of the lakes of the volcanic plateau.

To digress from this temporarily: Cowan, in his book The Maoris of New Zealand describes how the young people in the village would choose a suitable pohutukawa, which extended long, strong branches over the water - and use these as diving boards.

The Maori of long ago was very observant and there were certain trees which indicated by their manner of flowering and bearing fruit what the season's weather and the harvest would be. To quote from Cowan's book, "On the southern side of Lake Rotoiti, stand two large and ancient pohutukawas famous in the forest and nature-lore of the lake people. If these pohutukawas started to flower on the lowest branches first and so gradually burst into blossom from the bottom up, it was an omen of a warm and pleasant season - as well as a fruitful and abundant year for crops. But if, on the contrary, the buds burst first at the top and the tree flowers downwards, it is a sign of a cold and inclement season - a disastrous year for crops."

I can remember more than 30 years ago, when the Wellington Beautifying Society under the leadership of that great horticulturist, Mrs Knox Gilmer, planted a number of pohutukawas on the bank of the Hutt Road. Some may have succumbed to the rigours of the southerly gales, but the majority are still there in the more sheltered parts near Kaiwharawhara. I was very interested to read in the paper recently that seed of pohutukawa has been sown on the clay banks of the Ngauranga Gorge (which has been widened) with the hope the scars made by the bulldozers and earth-moving machines will be obliterated. A splendid idea and it is to be hoped the sowing is a successful one.

Pohutukawas do particularly well round the Eastern Bays - Muritai. Also there are excellent specimens growing in and around Paekakariki.

They are successfully cultivated in northern parts of the South Island and I have seen them in some Christchurch gardens. They are also in cultivation as far south as Dunedin and I know of one planted 20 years ago at Leask Bay, Stewart Island. It is interesting to note that it flowers in February/March.

Over the years, those in charge of parks and reserves have realised the virtue of growing pohutukawas for ornamental reasons as well as shelter. In addition to the colourful display the tree will treat you to, it encourages the tuis whose melodious notes can be heard throughout the day.

Like many of our New Zealand trees, the pohutukawa will flower heavily one year and not so heavily the next. After a heavy flowering season it is almost as if a scarlet carpet has been laid beneath the tree, so numerous are the spent stamens. A memory I shall always cherish is seeing an avenue-like collection of pohutukawas growing at the northern tip of the Coromandel Peninsula. Although they were still flowering profusely, underfoot was a scarlet carpet and this lasted for nearly a mile. To enhance the scene, every now and again one had views of the azure blue sea beyond; and last but not least, the tuis were there feasting on the honey, and showing their pleasure by treating us to musical phrases, interspersed with gurglings and chimings.

Under normal conditions the pohutukawa will grow into a large spreading tree. The branchlets and under surface of the leaves are clothed with white tomentum. The leaves vary in shape, but usually they are from one to three inches long with recurved margins. The dark, crimson flowers consisting of many stamens are borne in terminal cymes, about three inches in diameter. The fruit is a small, oblong capsule roughly a quarter of an inch long.

It is not surprising to find that so spectacular a tree figured prominently in Maori folk lore. One such story concerns the ancestors of our noble Maori race. The Arawa canoe, on approaching New Zealand at Cape Runaway, saw the pohutukawas all in flower. As they got nearer to the shore, the rangatira (chief) of the canoe said, "The headdresses of this land are better than those of Haiwaki - I'll throw mine into the water." And so he threw his headdress into the sea.

Perhaps it was the ocean-loving nature of the pohutukawa that inspired the oldtime Maori to believe that an ancient pohutukawa growing on the northern extremity of New Zealand was the last earthly hand-hold of the spirit before leaping into the underworld.

The pohutukawa is endemic to New Zealand and its timber is very durable.


The seed is ripe in February and in the Auckland province, especially in coastal areas, it is safe to broadcast it on clay banks. Further inland it may be advisable to sow seed in a box with a very light layer of sand over the top.

Although the pohutukawa is very adaptable it will require special care to establish it in areas subject to frosts of 10 or more. Most nurserymen sell pohutukawas, and if it is your intention to try and establish a plant inland where frosts are frequently around the 10 mark, it would be advisable to buy a plant about two or three feet tall from a nurseryman. At this height they tend to get their adult foliage, which is not only darker in colour but has a much more leathery texture - thus it can stand harsher conditions. As an added precaution, it would be advisable to protect it with some scrim or even a canopy of bracken fern till all risk of frost is over.

For those who would like to try their hand at propagating pohutukawas in colder districts, it is a good idea to layer some of the aerial roots already referred to as growing on mature trees in sheltered places. These, or three inch long cuttings could be used. When rooted, the plants could be kept in a green-house for several years until their adult foliage develops. Then harden off and plant out. They transplant easily.

Nurserymen also stock a variegated form of pohutukawa. It requires shelter, but perhaps looks more effective in a tub or planter box. It is slow-growing, and its creamy-greyish-green foliage makes it ideal for the discerning indoor plant enthusiast. It is raised frcm cuttings and its full title is Metrosideros excelsa variegata.

Within recent years a yellow-flowered variety of pohutukawa (M. excelsa var. aurea) has been discovered growing wild on an island off Tauranga. Mr Potts records that it has also been found near Cape Runaway. It has been propagated, and although more expensive, it is always a thrill to own something that is rare. It is raised from cuttings without any trouble.

Tree Care...

Q:We have a lovely New Zealand Christmas Tree growing in our garden in Brisbane, Australia. Two main branches died late last year and other branches look like they are also going to die. Other parts of the tree are shooting new growth but some of these have also withered. Any suggestion how to save the tree would be most welcome. I believe the tree would be at least 15 years old. It is 4-5 m high.

A: You have given me insufficient data to prescribe for your tree, so I will have to generalise.
If there is no obvious damage to the trunk/junction of the branches, to explain the dying off (Such as split joint that interferes with flow of water/nutrients to branch), then the next most likely cause would be that the tree has outgrown its root structure.
A rule of thumb is that the root structure is a mirror of the visible tree - if there is concrete/rock/whatever restricting the root growth, then the upper part becomes unsustainable.
If the above is suspected, then the cure is to drastically prune the branch structure to approximately correspond to the remaining viable root mass.
It is a hardy tree and will often regenerate after major damage (as your new shoots indicate).
Good Luck with it!

Featured Books (Shipped anywhere in the world)

Pohutukawa and Rata: New Zealand's Iron-hearted Trees Know Your New Zealand Trees Introducing New Zealand Trees: a Guide Identifying Common Trees in New Zealand Eagles Complete Trees and Shrubs of New Zealand ( 2 Vol boxed set)  
Purchase this book Purchase this book Purchase this book Purchase this book  

Q: I would like to know is a Pohutakawa a conifer. Also are Pohutakawa leaves adjacent or alternative.
Thankyou - Neisha
A: Hi Neisha, Pohutukawa is of the genus Myrtaceae (Myrtle family) and the bright red flowers are the long stamen clusters. The leaves grow from adjacent clusters, rather than pairs, and are furry underneath.

Q: I would love to have a Pohutukawa tree.
Do they grow in the tropics?
Always wanted to live in New Zealand - Terrece (Trinidad)
A: Hi Terrece -
They occur naturally from 34 to 39 degrees south and like warm coastal conditions.
They prefers a well-drained but moisture-retentive lime-free soil in a sunny position and will tolerate poor, dry soil once established, and are very tolerant of salt laden winds.
I suspect your 10 degree North latitude will be a bit hot and humid for it.

Featured Artworks (Shipped anywhere in the world)

Diana Adams Pohutukawa prints Pohutukawa Bay Koru Print


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