It is fascinating to know that in New Zealand, they have a typical tree for Christmas, which is called the Pohutukawa. This is New Zealand’s best-known and most visible native tree. Have you ever seen the Kiwis decorate this plant for Christmas? If yes, don’t hesitate to take a picture and share it with the community!
The Origin of Pohutukawa
In 1833 The evangelist Henry Williams described holding service under a ‘wide spreading pohutukawa’. The first known published a reference to the pohutukawa as a Christmas tree appeared 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. A few 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 military 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, However, would have instantly identified with the image.
A Versatile Tree
The tree has a remarkable ability to cling to steep cliffs and hillsides and grow in other seemingly impossible places (there is even a grove of pohutukawa trees on the active volcano island of White Island in the Bay of Plenty).
Translated from Maori, pohutukawa means “sprinkled by spray”, which is an apparent reference to the fact that it is usually found along the seashore. Besides, providing welcome shade for beachgoers in New Zealand’s summer, the blaze of crimson flowers it produces from November to January has given the pohutukawa the label the “New Zealand Christmas Tree”.
Absolutely, for generations of kiwis, the flowering pohutukawa is one of the great symbols of the Christmas holiday season. In fact, there are several varieties of pohutukawa, producing a range of colored flowers, from scarlet to peach.
The tree is also remarkable for its erratic flowering; different parts of the same tree may flower at slightly different times. In recent years the pohutukawa has been under threat from predators, especially the possum.
As it does with other trees, the possum feeds on the leaves of the pohutukawa, stripping it bare. Major efforts are underway to reduce possum numbers but they remain a constant threat.
The World’s Largest Pohutukawa Tree
At Te Araroa on the east coast of the North Island, just over 170 km from Gisborne, is a very special pohutukawa. This is the largest known pohutukawa in the world. It is tall more than 21 meters and at its widest point is 40 meters in diameter.
The tree is named “Te-Waha-O-Rerekohu” by local Maori. It is estimated to be over 350 years old. The name comes from the name of a local director, Rerekohu, who lives in the area.
This pohutukawa stands on the grounds of the local school, near the beachfront of the town. It is very obvious from the road and is a “must-see” on the tour around the East Cape from Opotiki to Gisborne. It is also not far from the East Cape view and lighthouse, which sit on the most easterly point in New Zealand.
Perhaps the most famous pohutukawa tree in New Zealand is at the cliff edge of the country’s northernmost point, Cape Reinga. This area is of great spiritual significance to the Maori people. Known as the “place of leaping”, this is, according to Maori belief, where at death the spirit starts it’s journey to Hawaiki, their traditional homeland.
Interestingly, though, a pohutukawa tree is at the center of some controversy which suggests Captain Cook may not have been the first European to have landed in New Zealand. In La Corunna, a coastal city in the northwest of Spain, there is a large pohutukawa that locals believe is nearly 500 years old. Whatever its age, in fact, the tree becomes the city’s floral emblem. Wherever else you go in the upper North Island, the pohutukawa is a common and distinctive feature of the New Zealand coastline. And if you are here around Christmas you will see its wonderful flowers.