Celebrate the season with a native pōhutukawa or rātā. Words & Photos Gillian Vine
Along with European missionaries, we imported the practice of using fir or pine trees, real or fake, to adorn our homes at Christmas.
The notion of decorating evergreens is credited to Martin Luther (1483–1546), who supposedly took home a branch of a fir and spruced it up it to please his six children. (History does not tell us what his wife thought of the dropped needles.) The Victorians, led by Prince Albert, got hooked on conifers at Christmas and, not to be outdone, Franklin Pierce is said to have been the first American president to have a tree in the White House in 1856, a tradition that has survived.
About the same time, pōhutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa) was becoming known as our Christmas tree. One of the earliest references was in January 1858: in a report of a feast given by Hokianga chief Eruera Maihi Patuone, the table decorations were ‘flowers of the scarlet Pohutukawa [sic] or Christmas tree’.
In 1990, Project Crimson was established, initially to replant parts of coastal Northland with pōhutukawa. A huge success, it was broadened to include rātā and, more recently, champion the planting of all native tree species.
Pōhutukawa and rātā species are among the world’s 52 species of Metrosideros. Most are from the South Pacific and 12 are endemic (unique) to New Zealand. Of those, six are climbers.
Pōhutukawa grows rapidly and flowers when quite young, especially if grown from cuttings taken from mature trees. If given space, it grows into a 20m spreading tree that copes with dry conditions and poor soils. In adverse situations, trees are smaller but larger specimens can be pruned to maintain shape and keep height manageable.
Although pōhutukawa grows satisfactorily as far south as coastal Otago – there are some fine specimens in Dunedin – its natural southern limit is Poverty Bay, and it hates a hard frost. Kermadecpōhutukawa (M. kermadecensis) is said to be even less enthusiastic about cold conditions.
The climbing rātā species vary in coldtolerance, so check before buying. All need moist soil, as does southern rātā (M. umbellata). The latter can be used as hedging as it withstands pruning and is hardy.
That pōhutukawa and rātā are closely related is demonstrated by the natural hybrids of pōhutukawa and southern rātā. Such crosses were known in the 1950s but apparently not named.‘Maungapiko’ was found on Great Barrier Island in the 1980s by the late Graeme Platt (1941–2021). Fortunately, ‘Maungapiko’ has been developed for the garden industry, as the original plant was bulldozed during roadworks.
‘Mistral’ – a pōhutukawa and northern rātā (M. robusta) cross – was another Platt discovery, this time from the Coromandel. Both are considered hardier than M. excelsa.
Deliberate crosses were made by the late Les Cleveland, of Dunedin, using native M. excelsa, M. robusta and M. umbellata, as well as M. collina from French Polynesia. Using M. umbellata improved cold-hardiness.
‘Cleveland Red’ is a 1990s hybrid of M. umbellata and M. excelsa, raised in the mid- to-late 1990s. ‘Rustic Beauty’ is an earlier Cleveland M. umbellata × M. excelsa hybrid.
Our six climbing rātā germinate at ground level and climb handy trees in search of sunshine. Grown from cuttings, M. fulgens, akatea (M. perforata) and akakura (M. carminea) will grow as shrubs, with ‘Carousel’ and ‘Ferris Wheel’ named selections of the latter. Any one is worth considering as a garden plant if it can be given a cool root run. For later flowers, M. fulgens has orange-red blooms from February to June. Note, it is quite frost-tender.
Summer-flowering northern rātā and Bartlett’s rātā (M. bartlettii) start life as epiphytes perching in trees, so may be mistaken for climbers. As the seedlings grow, they eventually strangle their hosts and develop as trees 25–30m tall. Northern rātā is often hollow in the centre where the host tree has decayed.
M. fulgens for its ability to be a shrub or climber, long flowering season and the option of a yellow-flowered form, ‘Gold’. Southern gardeners might prefer hardier ‘Maungapiko’.
The word ‘pōhutukawa’ conjures up a picture of Christmas and a sunny beach overhung with gnarly old trees covered with bright red flowers. The image of rātā is a holiday scene in January, the hillside a blaze of scarlet. Keep the Christmas season alive at home with red-flowered ‘St Nicholas’ or ‘Xmas Dream’, two small (3m) forms of southern rātā, or pōhutukawa ‘Christmas Cheer’. Yet not all Metrosideros have red flowers: they can be white, yellow, orange or pink, too.
Four climbing rātā – M. colensoi, M. diffusa, M. perforata and M. albiflora – have white flowers, although sometimes pinkish or cream blooms are seen. White is almost unknown in taller Metrosideros except for white southern rātā (M. umbellata ‘Alba’) and the extremely rare Bartlett’s rātā (M. bartlettii). First found near Cape Reinga in Northland in 1975, only about a dozen trees remain in the wild, down from 34 in 1992. Not surprisingly, it has been referred to as the kākāpō of the plant world.
In the pink
Pink is an unusual colour, although occasionally it appears in northern and southern rātā. It has also been recorded in pōhutukawa, as have apricot and salmon shades. M. umbellata ‘Kaka’ was found by Denis Hughes at Kaka Point in South Otago. This 3m shrub has salmon-pink flowers and the glossy foliage typical of southern rātā. Like pōhutukawa, ‘Kaka’ has proved to be ideal for coastal locations, thanks to its resistance to wind and salty air.
Go for gold
The first pōhutukawa (M. excelsa ‘Aurea’) to be marketed as a named cultivar had greenish-yellow flowers, not red. Two trees were found on Motiti Island in the Bay of Plenty about 1940 and leading nursery Duncan & Davies began selling ‘Aurea’ in 1947 and some nurseries still stock it. ‘Moon Maiden’ is a selected form of ‘Aurea’. Other yellow pōhutukawa have since been found in the Bay of Plenty and near Whakatāne. Initially thought to be a separate species, a bright yellow form of scrambling or climbing aka (M. fulgens ‘Aurata’) was first found in 1890. A lovely plant, it can be difficult to source, although Blue Mountain Nurseries in West Otago has it listed in its current catalogue. Yellow-flowered southern rātā is an attractive smaller tree, suitable for the West Coast, Southland and coastal Otago. Unfortunately, it does not seem to appear in any current nursery catalogues.
If you can give it the space it needs and have the climate to grow this rarity, a white-flowered Bartlett’s rātā would be a great specimen tree and a worthy conservation project. For golden flowers, ‘Moon Maiden’ ticks our boxes.
All our Metrosideros are evergreen, from the shiny foliage of southern rātā to the softer green of pōhutukawa leaves, whose undersides are covered with fine white fuzz (tomentum).
To add ‘oomph’, there are some with variegated foliage. The best-known is M. kermadecensis ‘Variegata’, with dramatic creamy-white margins on its grey-green leaves. Flowers tend to appear sporadically, rather than all at once. Not recommended for cold regions, as it is somewhat frost-tender.
From the same species come several other named varieties, including two with yellow and green variegated leaves: ‘Radiant’ and ‘Red and Gold’. The main difference is the young stems of ‘Radiant’ are yellow, while ‘Red and Gold’ has red branchlets.
Nurseries offer some variegated pōhutukawa, such as ‘Ohope’ and ‘Gold Nugget’. ‘Gold Finger’ is the reverse of most variegated plants, as the leaves are gold with green margins. ‘Centennial’ is similar but the leaves are smaller.
Hardier is ‘Tanes Gold’, a northern rātā with creamy leaves, edged with green. From southern rātā comes a good selection with variegated foliage: look for ‘Moonlight’ (golden yellow and green leaves), ‘Gold Blush’ (warm coppery tones in sun; cream and green in shade) and ‘Harlequin’ (green leaves, edged with cream).
‘Crystal Showers’ (aka ‘Crystal’) is a variegated form of climbing M. diffusa found on Stewart Island. Being of bush origin, it does best in cool shade or can be treated as a ground cover.
Despite its reputation for tenderness, M. kermadecensis ‘Variegata’ has the most distinctive contrasting foliage. ‘Gold Blush’ is a pretty southern rātā that gets our vote for its coppery colour.