Australasian Christmas Plants


Pohutukawa - Metrosideros excelsa - New Zealand's native Christmas Tree
New South Wales Christmas Bush - Ceratopetalum gummiferum - an Australian Christmas plant

Pohutukawa - Metrosideros excelsa

The pohutukawa is a tree that lives naturally along the coast of many parts of the North Island of New Zealand, once forming a virtually continuous fringe to our coastline, from the northern tip down to around Gisborne. It has adapted with leaves coated on the underside with tiny hairs that defend the tree against sea spray. It has lovely gnarled roots. and branches that start low down making it a favourite for kiwi kids to climb. "Pohutukawa" is said to mean "splashed by spray" in NZ Maori. Pohutukawa honey has a unique salty flavour and is a kiwi favourite along with manuka honey.

It gained it's alternative name, the "New Zealand Christmas Tree" because it flowers in the summer coinciding with a Southern Christmas. It may also be because of the beautiful red colour of the blossom against the dark green of the leaves - very traditional Christmas colours. According to one source it's red blossoms were used to decorate the Christmas trees of English settlers when they first arrived in NZ.

Sadly, pohutukawas have had a struggle to survive as they are a favourite food of possums. Possums are a native of Australia that was brought over here and spread widely - creating a huge problem in NZ's fragile eco-system. In recent years possum control has improved, with possums being eradicated from some of our small offshore islands allowing the pohutukawa and other native plants to flourish again. There is a special organisation, Project Crimson, which is dedicated to re-establishing pohutukawa along the coastlines where they were once so prolific.

The pohutukawa has an important place in the Maori culture of Aotearoa (New Zealand). A pohutukawa tree clings to the cliffs at Cape Reinga, the northern most tip of New Zealand. Within Maori culture this is traditionally seen as the departure point for the spirits of the dead to other worlds. So in the Maori world, to mention that a person "has slid down the pohutukawa root" is a poetic way of saying that he has travelled to the world of his ancestors.

Tradition says that when those in the Tainui canoe first sighted the pohutukawa clad shoreline of Aotearoa, the voyagers called to their chief to throw overboard the kura (possibly sacred red feathers) that they carried on board, as they could see a mass of red colour on the cliffs on shore, which they mistook for birds with red feathers.

The kura were therefore thrown overboard. When the chief landed and climbed the cliffs he found only pohutukawa blossoms, which when picked, soon drooped in the sun. He therefore went in search of his lost feathers, and found them in the possession of a man called Mahina, who would not give them up.

From this came the proverb - "The cast-away plumes of Mahina", which is sometimes quoted when an article is found, and those who possess it do not wish to give it up to the original owner.

There is also weather folkore surrounding the pohutukawa - Maori traditionally predicted a long hot summer when pohutukawa trees bloomed early and profusely.

As an interesting aside - there are pohutakawas that have a yellow flower occuring naturally on the east coast of the small Motiti Island in the Bay of Plenty. Locals say this is the only known place where they still grow naturally.

NSW Christmas Bush - Ceratopetalum gummiferum

This is a small tree which is covered in masses of small, cream flowers in spring. Later these turn a deep, rich red in time for Christmas. The flowers last a long time, and cut branches are perfect for floral arrangements and other Christmas decorating.

In the years before domestic gardens became common, an annual hunt for natural decorations almost wiped out the native NSW Christmas Bush. Men used to harvest them around Sydney and sell them door-to-door and, for a time, some people were afraid to grow Christmas Bushes in case their garden fences were destroyed "by ruthless larrikins who will secure them by any means".

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