Gardening with Gael - Pohutukawa strength and beauty mirror coastal environment
Pohutukawas treat us to a rolling bloom. Varying shades of red slowly burst on trees lining our roads and beaches. That pohutukawas are traditionally known as our Christmas tree was celebrated at a primary school concert I attended this afternoon. Dressed in green with yellow tipped stamens radiating from their heads a group of five-year-olds danced enthusiastically to Christmas tunes.
According to Palmers Manual of Trees, Shrubs and Climbers the Maori name ‘pohutukawa’ means drenched with spray, referring to the tenacious way the tree clings to rocks and cliffs. There is one tree that holds particular significance for Maori. Situated at Cape Reinga on a rocky outcrop extending into the ocean, according to Maori mythology this is the place where the spirits of the dead leave New Zealand. I have visited Cape Reinga many times and felt the spiritualness of the place where the oceans meet.
Metrosideros excelsa, our New Zealand Christmas tree, has a distinctive place in our landscape. On the coast its multi-trunked form and spreading habit provides the shelter from salt laden winds. Cyclones from the east are met with enormous resilience, the wind filtered and sent up over the branches. The twisted shape that makes them so distinctive also helps them move with the weather, withstanding salt and sea spray. They provide a great deal of stability along the shoreline of our coast and estuary. At one stage possums savaged the trees until Project Crimson swung into action to save them.
Sadly their majestic form is too often hacked and mutilated by homeowners keen to improve their view. With judicious pruning a view can be enhanced by these magnificent trees. There are some great specimens on the road out to the surf beach where owners have pruned all the bottom branches leaving bare trunks to look through with the upper branches bushy and bathed in blossom. This is an ideal way to live symbiotically with the trees that provide so much in the way of shelter.
If they are cut down their recovery rate is rapid. Instead of a few trunks they produce masses of new shoots resulting in a much denser, poorly proportioned tree. With this ability to recover, pohutukawas also make excellent screens and hedges responding well to pruning and training.
For years I have wanted to train a pohutukawa to use as a Christmas tree. The years I have used them I have ended up planting them. Jess Costello from Mangawhai Natives has been growing one in a pot since 2008 which I think shows real commitment. During this time she has repotted the tree twice. I thought she may have pruned the roots along with the rest of the tree but no she hasn’t.
Pohutukawas sport aerial or adventitious roots. These are roots that form from the branches or trunks, searching for crevices in rocks or places to take hold and have provided the pohutukawa with a great support system in coastal regions. Jess’s tree has a few which she is keeping trimmed. The upper part of the tree has been pruned to shape [see photo.] I suggested the nursery could supply pohutukawa Christmas trees but she says the demand for pohutukawas is so great they don’t usually have any left over to train for Christmas. I guess we are just going to have to train our own.
A well pruned pohutukawa at Mangawhai Heads.
Jess has been growing her pohutukawa Christmas tree for a decade.