Pohutukawa, a Maori word, refers to an ornamental tree the English-speaking world commonly calls New Zealand Christmas tree (Metrosideros excelsa). Early settlers to New Zealand in the 19th century also called it "settler's Christmas tree" or "antipodeal holly." Blooming in summer, this relative of gum trees and bottlebrushes makes a spectacular street or shade tree in frost-free regions with a Mediterranean-like climate. Grow it outdoors in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 10 and warmer.
Pohutukawa tree hails from the northern island of New Zealand, known in the Maori language as "Aotearoa."
New Zealand History Online shares a wealth of native lore regarding the pohutukawa tree: Tawhaki, a young Maori warrior, once tried to find heaven to avenge the death of his father. In the attempt, Tawhaki fell to earth and the crimson flowers of this tree represent his blood.
An 800-year old pohutukawa tree with gnarled, twisted trunk and limbs resides on the windswept cliff top Cape Reinga, the northern tip of New Zealand. For Maori, this small, venerated tree is known as "the place of leaping." They believe from this tree the spirits of the dead begin their journey to their traditional homeland of Hawaiiki. The spirits leap off the Aotearoa headland, descending on the roots of the tree into the underworld.
Growing as large as 30 to 80 feet tall, pohutukawa tree is an upright, freely branching evergreen tree that becomes more broadly spreading with great age. Its oblong leaves are glossy, dark-green, with densely hairy white undersides, but young trees' leaf undersides are not as white as those on old trees. Around the summer solstice, which in New Zealand corresponds to Christmastime, branch tips bear rounded clusters of tiny, trumpet-like flowers with fiery-red filaments and yellow anthers. Bees and honeyeater birds devour the abundant nectar.
Plant a pohutukawa tree where it receives over eight hours of direct sunlight daily. In hot and arid summer areas, a little shade in the middle of the afternoon is best. The soil needs to be deep, fertile, moist but well-draining and rich in organic matter, ideally with an acidic to neutral pH (less than 7.2). Also plant this tree where it will not be bombarded with cold, dry winter winds. From spring to fall water freely and apply a balanced fertilizer monthly, but withhold irrigation in winter.
Improved selections include more intensely red flowers, like on Fire Mountain and Parnell. Pink floral filaments form on Pink Lady. Striking golden-yellow filaments occur on Aureus and Moon Maiden. The leaves of Gala are green with yellow centers; it produces blossoms with red and gold filaments.