Pohutukawa, with its striking red flowers, is an important symbol for all New Zealanders. In Maori mythology, its flowers are said to represent the blood of a young warrior who perished while trying to avenge his father’s death. The Maori also used the flowering of Pohutukawa trees as a seasonal indicator, and when Christian settlers arrived in New Zealand, the blossoming of this species’ bright red flowers in December and January inspired its alternative common name of the New Zealand Christmas tree. Pohutukawa often features on festive greetings cards, poems and stories. As well as a cultural symbol, the species has several practical uses. Its hard strong timber was used for ship-building, and parts of the tree were also used medicinally by the Maori.
Pohutukawa grows in coastal forests on New Zealand’s North Island, where its thick, twisted roots help it to grow on the cliffs. These trees withstand strong southern ocean winds, salt spray and drought, and can live for up to 1000 years. They also provide shelter and erosion control, vital ecosystem services in this exposed region.
Despite its importance as a cultural symbol, Pohutukawa populations have declined dramatically – 25 years ago it was thought that up to 90% of coastal Pohutukawa stands had disappeared. The primary threat to this species is invasive non-native possums. Possums are voracious leaf-eaters, and will eat mature leaves, buds, flowers and shoots, stripping trees of their vegetation. They are a serious threat to many other native trees in New Zealand, including the Critically Endangered Bartlett’s rata (Metrosideros bartlettii), which is closely related to Pohutukawa.
Pohutukawa populations have also been affected by the use of fire for land clearing – despite its hardiness, the species is very sensitive to fire and even a light grassland fire at the base of a mature tree will kill it. Its roots are vulnerable to damage from livestock and vehicles, and it continues to be used as firewood. Hybridisation with other Metrosideros species threatens the genetic integrity of Pohutukawa.
Since 1990, the Project Crimson Trust has been working to conserve Pohutukawa trees and other threatened native trees in New Zealand. Through Project Crimson, over 300,000 native trees, including Pohutukawa, have been planted across the country, and prospects for Pohutukawa are hopeful. Continued efforts from organisations such as the Project Crimson Trust will ensure these trees continue to light up New Zealand Christmases for many years to come.
New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage. New Zealand History: Pohutukawa trees. https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/pohutukawa-flowers. Accessed 09/12/2016.
New Zealand Department of Conservation. Pohutukawa. http://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-plants/pohutukawa/. Accessed 09/12/2016.
Project Crimson: http://projectcrimson.org.nz/. Accessed 09/12/2016.
Trees for Survival. Pohutukawa. http://www.tfsnz.org.nz/uncategorized/pohutukawa/. Accessed 09/12/2016
Feature image credit: Tahu Taylor-Koolen/Department of Conservation, New Zealand
Did you know?
Over 1,100 trees are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List – likely to go extinct unless urgent action is taken now to save them