This article was published in the Titirangi Tatler, June 2010
Rata - a winter cheer.
The trees of the rata family are summer-flowering. Their botanical genus of Metrosideros refers to the strength of their heart wood and some people refer to them as 'iron-hearts'. Certainly pohutukawa is a particularly strong wood and used to be incorporated into the keel and ribs of sailing boats. But not all the members of the genus are robust trees with thick trunks. There are several vines in the family that seldom have free-standing forms and generally scramble across the forest floor until they find a suitable trunk or rock to climb up. These vines are basically supported by their host tree and the climbing rata can manage life with a modest trunk no more than 10cm thick. The flower colours of the vines are white or carmine either in the spring, autumn or winter. The most vigorous and colourful is Metrosideros fulgens which has a long flowering period from autumn to early spring and brings a bright splash of orange to scarlet colour to the forest, and the garden, throughout winter.
Fulgens means 'shining, radiant, glowing or flashing like lightning' and it is certain that if you go for a bush walk in the next few months you will catch a glimpse of rata's vivid colour high in the tree tops. Check closely and you will discover its trunk snaking all the way up the tree till it gets into the light where it thickens and develops into a dense bushy shrub. In the wild it takes many years to flowering so patience is needed if you try to establish it under an existing tree. However the home gardener can trick it by planting it in a full sun situation where it will possibly flower in just a few years.
Plant it near a wooden retaining wall or fence and with encouragement it will gradually take hold and begin the slow ascent to the top. While it may test your patience, it is a remarkable plant when well established and in full flower. So much so, that the Maori had several names for the plant and three for the flowers. Perhaps 'aka' and 'puatawhiwhi' are the most commonly used Maori names for the plant and the flower respectively, but Europeans tend to give it the over-simplified term 'climbing rata'.