Around the world the Christmas season is celebrated with conifer trees–symbol of undying life in the winter darkness….except…in some places Christmas is celebrated in the middle of summer! Some places don’t have pine trees. This introduction takes us wayyyyy down south to the New Zealand archipelago, home of the pōhutukawa tree (Metrosideros excelsa) “The New Zealand Christmas tree.”
Pōhutukawa trees are indeed evergreens (of the myrtle family) but they are not pine trees…or conifers at all. These hardy coastal trees are known for tenaciously clinging to sea cliffs, but, above all, they are known for brilliant displays of exquisitely colorful flowers. The blossoms, which are composed of huge spiky masses of colorful stamens, peak just as summer begins—the end of December. Some flowers are yellow, pink, white, or orange, but the most characteristic specimens have blooms of brilliant red.
The trees are native to the northern island. Ancient specimens can grow to be 25 meters in height (about 83 feet) and they are wider than they are tall, but invasive animals and agricultural deforestation have reduced the great forests to a spectral shadow of their former glory. The hungry brushtail possum is a particular menace to the tree since the marsupial invader strips it of all its leaves. Nineteenth century mariners were guilty as well—the tough arching boughs of the tree were ideally suited for building and repairing beams of wooden ships.
Fortunately New Zealanders love the magnificent trees and plant them everywhere. There are numerous cultivars growing in gardens throughout the lovely islands. The trees are sometimes decorated at Christmas just like more familiar Christmas trees. Devoted pōhutukawa conservationists are working to restore the forests. Additionally the trees are not without their own toughness. They are one of the most efficient plants at colonizing naked lava rock where volcanoes have spewed out new lands.