Why the Pohutukawa is New Zealand's Christmas tree
The Pohutukawa tree is as kiwi as Marmite, jandals, and the kiwi itself. Its history in the country is intertwined with everything from local legend and medicine to our cultural history and natural landscape.
So what is this tree, and why is it New Zealand’s Christmas tree when we already have so much pine in the country?
The Pohutukawa tree is related to the rata – another iconic NZ species. It grows up to roughly 25 metres in height, and come summer every year, blossoms with bright and cheery red flowers. It’s even one of our favourite things to show guests on our Auckland day tours around this time of year!
It grows naturally around coastal areas of the North Island, and has also been planted in many other coastal and inland areas around the country so that more people can enjoy this beautiful summer bloom. That said, the Pohutukawa is most often seen in the North Island, or around the top of the South Island.
Like many trees, the Pohutukawa has been used medicinally in the past. The bark was once used to help with toothaches, to stop bleeding, and as a remedy for diarrhoea.
This tree is also tied up with more than one legend.
You will find one gnarled 800-year-old Pohutukawa at the very northern tip of New Zealand at Cape Reinga, and according to Maori myth, is ‘the place of leaping’. This spot is sacred as it is seen as the place where spirits leave the country to travel to the traditional homeland, Hawaiki.
Another myth tells the tale of a young Maori warrior who tried to avenge the death of his father by climbing to heaven. In the story, he sadly falls to his death, and the crimson of the flowers are said to represent his blood.
These days, legend has it that if the Pohutukawa is early to bloom (such as around early November), then New Zealand will see a long, hot summer.
Project Crimson is a conservation project that was established in 1990 to fight for the survival and wellbeing of both the Pohutukawa tree and the rata. Both workers and volunteers with this organisation can be proud of the massive achievements made through planting trees, supporting maintenance, coordinating possum control, educating the public, and helping to ensure scientific research on these wonderful trees. Because of such efforts, the Pohutukawa and rata are no longer considered threatened species, and just this year, the organisation was honoured with a Green Ribbon Award for their biodiversity work.
The NZ Christmas tree
Kiwis everywhere recognise this tree as a symbol of Christmas. It’s on our wrapping paper, our Christmas cards, and even on our front doors as wreaths (fake ones, of course).
It is simply because the tree blooms around Christmas time, and the dark red of the flower against the bright green of the leaves is such a traditionally seasonal colour combination. It has been known this way since at least the late 1800s, when early settlers could be heard describing it as the ‘Antipodean holly’, and of course’ the ‘New Zealand Christmas tree’.
Tristan Cullen - Passionate Conservationist