This article was published in the Titirangi Tatler, August 2011
The beauty of pohutukawa needs no describing to an Auckland audience and its attribute of heralding Christmas with a scarlet floral display is known around the southern hemisphere.
Every year there is a flurry in the week before Christmas to find a living Xmas tree to decorate and set amongst the gift-wrapped presents. Frequently the choice is pohutukawa as it has its own scarlet or blood-red decorations at that time. But it is not a plant that enjoys the indoors and the flowers are the first thing to show the plant is gasping for fresher air after being kept indoors for more than a week.
A better idea is to plan ahead and plant a tree outside where it can double as a Xmas tree when the fickle Auckland weather permits al fresco dining in December. Now is the best time to be planting pohutukawa as it then has time to establish and put on a good growth spurt including flower buds before summer. The larger the specimen, the more likely it is to flower for you this Xmas. If it is instant tree you want there is a ready supply of 5 - 6m tall trees that will provide instant privacy and bird perches as well as flowers for Xmas. But for those with less room, young pohutukawa trees make fine container plants.
But please ensure the trees you plant are "100% Pure NZ" as there are other named forms that may appear to be pohutukawa but, in reality, are Tahitian or Fijian forms - or hybrids between them and pohutukawa - which will inevitably transform our splendid native tree into a mutation through further cross-breeding, intended or otherwise. As you travel from Titirangi to Blockhouse Bay along Kinross Street, you may have observed the pohutukawa street plantings are frequently flowering. But how often have you seen them in full flower? These lovely trees are Kermadec Island pohutukawas and are characterised by a longer but more spasmodic flowering period. Hybridisation between local and these off-shore forms produces highly modified plants with the potential loss of many familiar characteristics, including our iconic summer flowering.
There are plenty of selections of the mainland form to choose from. The most commonly seen is Metrosideros Maori Princess, which has a very upright growth habit generally on a single trunk suitable for verges and roadside planting. It is a dark blood-red flowering form.
A much brighter flower colour is the vivid orange-red of Metrosideros Vibrance, and although upright, this is generally a wide-spreading tree.
Much as we may love and revere our pohutukawa and its cousins, they are among the NZ native species that have become weeds overseas. Even in Wellington which is outside pohutukawa's natural range, planted trees are now self-seeding and there is concern over the fate of the less-common but naturally-occurring related species, northern rata, which is in danger of being crowded out.
It's not just exotics that can become weeds. Native plants that aggressively take over sites beyond their natural range can be equally weedy. The problems of ‘weediness' and hybridisation between naturally-occurring and introduced species are lessons we must learn. Our forebears could be forgiven for their imports of ginger and other attractive weeds, and Titirangi residents are now well aware of the problems of introduced plants such as climbing asparagus and cotoneaster. Nowadays, the examples demonstrated by such an iconic tree as the pohutukawa should alert us to the need for caution and some research in even our most domestic plantings.