Summer-flowering pōhutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa) is New Zealand’s iconic Christmas tree. Around December, crowns of pōhutukawa are covered in clusters of bright red to dark crimson flowers.
Pōhutukawa usually grow as multi-trunked spreading trees that occasionally reach 25 metres in height. Their trunks and branches are sometimes festooned with bunches of hanging aerial roots. The leathery leaves are oblong, dark green on top and covered in dense white hairs underneath.
Project Crimson is a charitable conservation trust that works to protect New Zealand's native Christmas trees – pōhutukawa and rātā. Since it was set up in 1990, volunteers have planted hundreds of thousands of trees.
Naturally, pōhutukawa grew around the northern North Island’s coast, as far south as northern Taranaki in the west and Māhia Peninsula in the east. It has been widely planted around the coast further south. Trees growing inland near Rotorua and Lake Taupō may occur there naturally, or may have been planted by Māori.
In its natural northern range, pōhutukawa forms the main type of coastal forest. Inland, it grows as a minor part of kauri forest. Pōhutukawa can act as a pioneer plant, growing on bare ground – it was one of the first plants to grow on lava flows on Rangitoto Island, a 600-year-old volcano in the Hauraki Gulf.
Many stands of pōhutukawa have been damaged and killed by possums eating the foliage.
Pōhutukawa’s strong, durable wood was sometimes used for boat building. Its bent roots and branches were used to make knees – strengthening structures in boat hulls.
Kermadec pōhutukawa (Metrosideros kermadacensis) is the dominant tree of the Kermadec Islands, more than 1,000 kilometres north-east of New Zealand. It has been widely planted in mainland New Zealand, where it grows as a compact tree up to 15 metres tall. It has smaller, rounder leaves than New Zealand pōhutukawa, and flowers sporadically through the year.
Tree rātā and pōhutukawa can breed with each other and form hybrids. Hybrids of northern rātā and pōhutukawa are common around Lake Rotorua and on Rangitoto Island. Northern and southern rātā hybrids grow on the Marchant Ridge in the Tararua Range, on Great and Little Barrier islands, and in north-west Nelson.
Where mainland and Kermadec pōhutukawa are planted together, they often hybridise.