The Back Yard

Justin Newcombe's tips for creating a gorgeous and productive garden

The Back Yard: Symbol of summer

By Justin Newcombe

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Justin Newcombe admires the hardiness of New Zealand's Christmas tree, the beloved pohutukawa.

A starling investigates the first pohutukawa flowers of the season. Photo / Alan Gibson
A starling investigates the first pohutukawa flowers of the season. Photo / Alan Gibson

Not too many countries have their very own Christmas tree, pre-decorated with the floral version of the Hallelujah Chorus. I suppose it helps that we have Christmas in summer. The pohutukawa has become synonymous with the warm early summer and the beach, its big twisting branches perfect for the young climber and a rope swing.

There are a wide variety of pohutukawa in New Zealand and around the Pacific. Most flower a little earlier than the metrosideros excelsa (NZ Christmas tree) and are smaller. Pohutukawa reside in the North Island but the southern rata is a beautiful, more upright tree, with a deeper crimson but smaller coloured flower. There is also the rata vine which, because of its flower, carries the same rata name, flowering in early spring. The rata vine also makes a wonderful ground cover and the cuttings, curiously, will develop a more upright habit forming a small shrub which is superb for compact, tight hedges. The flowers of these also come in honey coloured golden blooms, although I prefer the crimson.

New Zealand is not the only country to have a metrosideros. One of our bestselling shrubs is the metrosideros tahiti, which grows to around a metre high.

It has broader softer foliage and a more open flower of a slightly orangery hue. Metrosideros tahiti is, however, the controversial Christmas tree as it is thought cross-pollination with our native pohutukawa is weakening the latter's genetic material. There is a Fijian counterpart which has a similar but slightly larger habit to the Tahitian at around two metres, and yellower foliage with similar concerns regarding cross-pollination.

The pohutukawa is easy to topiary as the juvenile tree has an erect, straight trunk, but the root ball will need to be clipped annually. Once in the ground, its vigorous growth habit will require you to relinquish your topiary dreams. These guys are a star in poor soil but won't do well in a bog, however in wet winter clay their vigorous root systems will gobble much of the water, doing a superb job at drying out the ground.

Clay will dry out, becoming like rock in summer. That doesn't seem to be a concern either as the pohutukawa develops dreadlock-like aerial roots which absorb moisture from the air.

I'm amazed at the deprivation the pohutukawa flourishes under, perched defiantly upon coastal clifftops flowering like the New Zealand version of the Sound of Music. The flowering can be a bit temperamental and is weather-dependent, so don't bank on a Christmas show every year. The flowers also don't last that long and leave a stubborn red carpet giving them little success as an indoor Christmas option.

Practicalities aside, the notion of the New Zealand Christmas tree is rightfully ensconced in the Kiwi tradition. Park yourself under one this summer. You'll be like a big present, under a natural gift that keeps on giving.

3 of the best: Christmas wraps to recycle in the garden

1. Ribbon
Your beans will look like a maypole dance at an English country fair.

2. Paper
Go outside and wrap the ground, then pile on the mulch and save your soil from the summer sun.

3. Boxes
Pack all that leftover Christmas food into a box with some lawn clippings and a handful of lime. You'll have compost by winter.

- NZ Herald

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