31 May 2015

A celebration of trees: May: the pohutukawa

As my regular followers will know, one of my photography projects this year is a celebration of trees. To celebrate both the beauty and benefits of trees I have been posting a photo each day of a tree or trees. If you’re interested, you can see these photographs in my Picasa album

I am also sharing my favourite trees in a monthly blog post – this is the fifth of those posts. The previous ones can be viewed by clicking on the following links: January (one particular favourite), February (about lime avenues), March (on the subject of forests) and April (about the greening of the trees in the British springtime).  

This month, as I’m back in New Zealand for a short time, my chosen tree is the pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa), unofficially labelled New Zealand’s Christmas tree because its blossom, which ranges from stunning crimson to vibrant red, usually graces our coastlines, parks and gardens from November to February. I say usually because I recently found a tree still blossoming in late May – one very confused pohutukawa. As you can see from the photos here, the flowers are formed from an unusual mass of stamens.

Though I doubt there is any scientific proof to support the idea, most New Zealanders will tell you that when the pohutukawa blooms early, we’re in for a long hot summer. The beliefs of the Te Arawa Maori are even more detailed when it comes to using pohutukawa blossom for weather forecasting:

If flowering starts on the upper branches and progresses downwards, a cold and winter-like season will follow. But if flowering starts on the lower branches and progresses upwards, a warm and pleasant season lies ahead.

Pohutukawa are usually multi-trunked and, though they sometimes stand statuesquely upright, growing up to 25 metres (82 feet) tall, they also sprawl drunkenly across the ground and can often be found clinging precariously to rocky cliffs. 

As its scientific name indicates (Metrosideros means iron-hearted), the tree’s very dense, so very strong wood is one of the reasons it's able to survive the tough coastal environment. As well as the density of its wood, the pohutukawa also has trunks and branches that are frequently adorned with matted, fibrous aerial roots. These help the tree cling to those steep cliffs and also search out pockets of soil and moisture, aiding the pohutukawa’s survival in difficult conditions.

There is one particular old tree at Cape Reinga, the northernernmost tip of New Zealand, that holds great significance for Maori New Zealanders. According to the NZ History website

this small, venerated pohutukawa is known as ‘the place of leaping’. It is from here that the spirits of the dead begin their journey to their traditional homeland of Hawaiki. From this point the spirits leap off the headland and climb down the roots of the 800-year-old tree, descending into the underworld on their return journey.

Although the pohutukawa can grow up to 1000 years old, in recent years it has been in danger of dying out in some regions of New Zealand. Twenty five years ago, an organisation was founded to raise awareness of the plight of these beautiful trees and to support their replenishment (and that of other endangered trees) throughout the country. You can read more about Project Crimson and how they – and you  can help with the survival of the pohutukawa on their website.

Life’s better with trees!

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