Arno Gasteiger

Pohutukawa-flame of the north

Whether providing shade for a summer picnic, standing sentinel on a crumbling cliff or splashing Christmas crimson along garden edge, street or shoreline, the pohutukawa is one of the trees New Zealanders hold in greatest affection. Its grizzled bark and joyous blooms speak to us not just of the enduring qualities of the tree, but of the land itself.

Written by       Photographed by Kennedy Warne

Without a doubt, it is one of the top ten flowering trees in the world,” declares Graeme Platt, the native plant impresario. “In the north, a beach isn’t a beach without pohutukawa trees around it. Overseas visitors who saw pohutukawa were always wanting seed from me when I had the nursery. The tree is doing well in Seattle, California and Australia, and it is almost a weed along the coast near Capetown.”

Small wonder that it is so widely appreciated. Even apart from its smother of spectacular crimson blossoms in summer, the pohutukawa is a tree of outstanding character. Rough roots, thicker than the tentacles of Nemo’s squid, grope and grasp their way down cliffs. They seem more like misdirected branches than delicate tendrils seeking nutrients. Crooked, gnarled, furrowed limbs span ten or more metres, often cantilevered out from sheer cliffs. In between, roots and branches may form a temporary confedera­tion to produce a squat trunk, but as often as not branches just spring out of a plot of ground.

The whole tor­tured frame looks to have endured a thousand years of adversity, even when it has seen only fifty summers. Even the leathery leaves, downy white below, satin grey-green above, seem to have been honed by hardship.

The pohutukawa is a member of the huge myrtle family, which includes among its 3000 species eucalypts, guavas, feijoas, bottlebrushes, manuka, kanuka and swamp maire. In the New Zealand biological region two species of pohutukawa occur naturally: the common mainland tree Metrosideros excelsa and Metrosideros kermadecensis, a pohutukawa endemic to Raoul Island—a thousand kilometres to the north. In the same genus are several species of rata, both trees and climbers. The northern and southern rata sometimes start off their lives as climbers, then eventually throttle their support trees to become forest giants in their own right.

Pohutukawa seem to suffer from a fundamental confusion about the distinction between roots and branches. Not only do the roots resemble branches, but in many trees the branches sprout great beards of aerial roots that rarely reach the ground. When they do contact dirt, they certainly can attach, and mat and thicken into a walking stick for the branch. Even when a normal branch sags to the ground, it habitually establishes massive roots too. Perhaps this identity crisis arises from the fact that many sprawling pohutukawa trees are more horizontal than vertical, and the ground they inhabit is often more vertical than horizon­tal! For this is a tree that can survive on the salty edge of the land where no other can, clinging precari­ously to impossible rocks and cliffs, a tree that lends strength to the land in its eternal wrestle against the onslaught of the waves. A tree indeed.

Unfortunately, the pohutukawa is no longer flourishing with its ancient vigour along the coastlines of Aotearoa. To be sure, those glorious flowers still brighten north­ern shores each Christmas, but there aren’t anywhere near as many as there used to be. Principal culprit in their demise is the rapa­cious Australian brushtail possum, which feasts on them and their rata cousins as if they were floral caviar. But Graeme Platt, always an independent thinker, reckons that the possums don’t deserve as much blame as they are receiving. Human abuse, an inability to germinate among exotic weeds, lack of adequate nutrition in the areas the plant is now found in, and shortage of rain through felling too much Northland forest in earlier times—all these factors contribute to the pohutukawa’s decline, he says.

Studies conducted in the late 1980s by the Forest Research Institute on 197 stands of pohutukawa located around the northern coast between East Cape and Kawhia found that Northland trees were generally in poorest condition. Worst of all were those along the eastern shore of Kawau Island, where rotting trees littered the ground. More alarming than the health report was the age distribution of the stands: 80 per cent were classed as old or mature. Only 27 stands consisted mainly of young trees.

Everyone agrees that the pohutukawa remaining today are just a shadow of the forests that once existed around many northern coasts, but now are to be found only on a handful of islands, particularly Rangitoto and Mayor Island. Clearing of land by both Maori and Pakeha has been to blame, and the situation has been exacerbated by two peculiarities of the tree. First, pohutukawa are extraordinarily susceptible to fire, a favoured weapon of land clearers. Even a grass fire around the base will kill a mature tree. Second, seedlings are unable to regenerate in the presence of competing vegetation such as kikuyu grass. Young trees do well on bare ground, such as roadside cuttings, but there they are often at the mercy of trampling and browsing cattle and goats.

Brightest spot in human dealings with pohutukawa has been planting of the species south of its normal range. Pohutukawa is a latitude 38 tree (like kauri and man­grove) that naturally only occurs north of Kawhia and Gisborne. But as long as the young tree is not exposed to frost, it will grow much further south, so it is now a familiar tree in Wellington and in the west and north of the South Island.

Troubled by the Forest Research Institute’s findings, the Department of Conservation was able to enlist the support of forestry company Carter Holt Harvey in establishing the Project Crimson Trust in 1990. The object of the Trust is the betterment of pohutukawa (and very recently its cousins the rata), by protecting existing trees and planting more. Several enthusiastic volunteers devote much of their time to running Project Crimson. One is Ted Wilson, a retired businessman and life member of the Auckland Carnation, Gerbera and Gera­nium Society—a reflection of his lifelong enthusiasm for breeding and showing flowers.

“Carter Holt provides the bulk of our funds,” Ted explains. “We use that money to have pohutukawa grown, and we then donate young trees to various groups who approach us seeking trees. We don’t provide trees for planting on private land, nor do we support plantings south of the tree’s natural area, but we give trees to DOC, local bodies, schools, Forest and Bird, and com­munity groups. This year we are supporting between 40 and 50 planting projects, as well as making contributions to research that should benefit the trees.” The research includes attempts to chemically synthesise the scent of Dactylanthus taylorii (the wood rose) another favourite possum food, in the hope that it might be useful for attracting possums to baits, and a study into why only 10 per cent of pohutukawa seed is fertile.

Ted not only does much of the organising of Project Crimson activities, but visits sites where pohutukawa are debilitated, collects seed, distributes it to nurseries and organises the distribution of plants. Care is taken to collect seed from the areas where the trees are to be planted, and the young trees are then returned to those same areas a couple of years later. “We’ve found that the larger the plants, the better they survive when planted,” Ted says, “but transporting big plants is expensive, so we try and grow them near where they will be used. We are having trees grown from Whakatane to Te Paki.”

In Auckland, trees are grown for Project Crimson by the Crippled Children’s Society Nursery in Mt Albert and at Paremoremo Prison. Joe Watt of the prison staff says that the pohutukawa growing project has been very successful. “Last year we grew 16,000 plants from 19 different sites. A lot of the inmates haven’t had this sort of experience in the past, and they develop a bit of ownership pride and interest in the project. One whose interest was sparked by the work has gone on to do a horticulture programme with Massey University.”

Project Crimson has supplied 40-50,000 pohutukawa for planting over the last few years. A major current project is the erection of a 2.5 km possum-proof fence across the Cape Brett peninsula, to be followed by extermination of all possums on the peninsula and replanting of young pohutukawa to replace the ranks of dead and dying in the area.

Cute but lethal, possums have a particular fondness for the leaves and buds of pohutukawa which eventually results in the deaths of even large trees. Pohutukawa on Cape Brett, in the Bay ofIslands, have been particularly hard hit (opposite), and a possum-proof fence is now being erected across the peninsula. While it won't help the dead trees, new plantings and seedlings should benefit once possums have been eradicated from the area.
Cute but lethal, possums have a particular fondness for the leaves and buds of pohutukawa which eventually results in the deaths of even large trees. Pohutukawa on Cape Brett, in the Bay ofIslands, have been particularly hard hit (opposite), and a possum-proof fence is now being erected across the peninsula. While it won’t help the dead trees, new plantings and seedlings should benefit once possums have been eradicated from the area.

Not only Project Crimson is concerned about the plight of pohutukawa. Terry Hatch, a nurseryman near Pukekohe who has developed a deep affection for native plants, commented that “a while back pohutukawa seemed to be getting chewed off everywhere, so I decided to grow a few.” That year he grew 23,000 plants and sold them all. With Graeme Platt, he has toured the North Island and taken cuttings from promising or unusual pohutukawa. Two that have proved good cultivars are an orange-flowering variety from behind the hotel at Te Kaha (and called “Te Kaha”) and “Vibrant,” from a tree at Tapu, north of Thames.

“When you look closely at the flowers of pohutukawa, not many really look that good. Very few plants possess the long stamens that we find attractive. From my observations, bees prefer plants with short stamens, so I hand pollinate plants with long stamens to get seed from them. I suspect that if pollina­tion was left to bees, we’d end up with only short-stamen pohutukawa.”

In prehuman New Zealand, most pollination of pohutukawa was probably carried out by the abundant nectar-feeding birds and geckos, who may not share the bee’s preference for flowers with short stamens. Bats, too, apparently have a taste for pohutukawa nectar, and, on Little Barrier Island, roost in old pohutukawa.

“Pohutukawa seed has a most glorious fragrance,” Terry enthuses, “like richest, thick honey. It would make a wonderful perfume.” But it has a downside, too. “Put a sheet on the ground and tap the branches with a stick in April or May to collect seed, and stand clear! The seed is very fine and acts like itching powder. It takes a couple of washes to get it out of your clothes.”

For nearly four decades Mike Stuckey has been making pilgrimages each summer to the pohutukawa on Rangitoto—not to admire their beauty, but to harvest their bounty: honey. “It’s the whitest honey in the world, and has a very delicate flavour. Kids like it, and it’s very good for bottling where you don’t want the honey to overpower other flavours.

“Rangitoto has the only accessible pohutukawa forest in the country, and the honey we harvest would be better than 99 per cent pohutu­kawa. Twenty years ago we were getting between 11 and 20 tonnes of honey annually, depending on how heavy the flowering was. Slowly it declined until we were only getting four or five tonnes from the 200 or 300 hives we took down each summer, and it was barely worth the effort. Since the big 1080 [poison] drop there to kill possums a couple of years ago, we’ve recovered eight tonnes despite poor flowering. Before the drop, I’d go down, see all the buds, and always overestimate the crop, since the possums ate a lot of buds. Now I’m consistently underestimating it.”

Mike is sure that the oldest trees on the island are no more than 200 years old, and says most are much younger. “My mother went to the island in 1922, and said it was mostly bare rock. When we took her back in 1960, she couldn’t believe how much more vegetation there was, and most of that was pohutukawa. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the pohutukawa forest there will last for too many centuries longer. Pohutukawa can colonise and survive in the harshest conditions—such as the lava fields of Rangitoto—but once established, falling leaves and rotting branches will form humus that less hardy plants can grow in, and the pohutukawa will be squeezed out.

Their successors are unlikely to be as splendid.