Christmas is coming and one of our natives is synonymous with this time of year, the pōhutukawa. Commonly known as ‘The New Zealand Christmas tree’, Metrosideros excels has a naturally flamboyant decoration of red flowers contrasting against green and grey foliage. Photos or stylised versions of the flower are often seen on tourist memorabilia and across our Christmas cards. Flowers appear around Christmas time in the North Island and top of the South Island, but further south the flower emerges after Christmas. When you get into the colder regions of New Zealand, hard winter frosts can damage the new foliage or even kill plants, but don’t despair as there are other species tougher and just as showy.
In total there are 12 species of Metrosideros native to New Zealand. They belong to the Myrtaceae family, which also includes our manuka and kanuka.
There are species that can grow in any conditions, anywhere in New Zealand and many species are tolerant of coastal conditions, including salt spray.
Even though we associate them with beautiful red flowers, some species and forms can also have yellow, orange or white flowers. The flowers are unusual as they have little sign of any petals and are just made up of masses of stamens sticking out like a pincushion. The flowers are not just beautiful for us, they are also a very important source of nectar for native birds and insects who flock to them in the summer. The leaves are also important as a food source for many of our native stick insects.
Metrosideros are easily propagated from ripe seed. The small elongated seed is held in capsules and can take more than a year to ripen. Collect the capsules in a paper bag and shake vigorously to release the seed (drying the capsules first can help with this). Seed can be stored dry in the fridge until ready to sow.
Sow the seed thinly on top of a good potting mix or seed mix and lightly cover by sieving compost or sand over the top. Water well and keep moist in a shady location.
Germination can take from a week to several months. When seedlings are a few centimetres high then prick out into small pots in a good potting mix.
Cuttings of all species are possible as semi-ripe wood in summer, but specialist heat pads or equipment is needed for good success.
One of the climbing species of rata, needing protection from frosts and growing well in warm, moist, shaded areas under trees. It climbs trees or rocks by means of little roots that cling to rough surfaces, growing vigorously, reaching up to 10m high. Many cultivars have been selected mainly for their flower colour, with flowers red, orange or even yellow.
Metrosideros excelsa (pōhutukawa)
Forms a large tree to 25m often producing masses of red aerial roots coming down from the branches. Flowers are shades of red through to white and yellow.Unfortunately, man has removed over 90% of the original pōhutukawa forest, followed by it being a favourite food for possums. ‘Project Crimson’ has been set up to preserve remaining stands and help them flourish (www.projectcrimson.org.nz)
The jewel of the south. This species is very tough and flowers around Christmas time in the south. Its only drawback is it is very slow growing, forming a small to medium-size rounded tree often clothed in branches and foliage to the ground. Flowers are usually red but there is also a white form. Prefers the cooler south and higher rainfall.
The northern rata is naturally found in the North Island and top of the South Island, but can survive well further south. Having dark-green glossy leaves with a distinctive notch at the tip, it is often one of the earliest species to flower in the south. Northern rata forms a massive tree to 25m, but often starts its life as a seedling up in the branches of a host tree. As it grows, it sends roots down to the ground eventually surrounding the tree and merging together to form a fused trunk around the decaying host.