Pohutukawa flowering – is it Christmas already?

No, it is not Christmas already. (Fortunately the year hasn’t passed by that quickly.)

But this pohutukawa on Wellington’s waterfront, opposite Frank Kitts Park, seems to think so. It has been spluttering into flower over the last few weeks.

Pohutukawa on Wellington’s waterfront, 20 June 2009. It is still in flower, over a month later. Image by Leon Perrie, Curator. © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Pohutukawa on Wellington’s waterfront, 20 June 2009. It is still in flower, over a month later. Image by Leon Perrie, Curator. © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

The pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa) is New Zealand’s ‘Christmas tree’, its bursting display of red flowers signalling the onset of summer warmth.

Pohutukawa as New Zealand’s Christmas tree from New Zealand History Online.

The pohutukawa in the picture above has got its timing ‘wrong’. Perhaps it was confused by the early onset of the cold weather this year.

Alternatively, it might actually have some genes in it from the Kermadec Islands’ pohutukawa (M. kermadecensis), which flowers all year round. The pictured pohutukawa also has smaller leaves than its four non-flowering neighbours. But otherwise it looks like M. excelsa, having more pointed rather than rounded leaves.

Metrosideros kermadecensis fact sheet of the NZ Plant Conservation Network.

The Kermadec Islands’ pohutukawa is only found naturally on the Kermadec Islands, which are in the subtropics, several hundred kilometres north of the North Island. However, it has been brought to mainland New Zealand, where it hybridises with M. excelsa.

That M. excelsa times its flowering for summer is presumably the result of natural selection for when seasonal conditions are optimal (maybe pollinators are more active, or the resource levels of the trees are higher, or seed survival is better). In contrast, the year-round flowering of M. kermadecensis is probably a reflection of the reduced seasonality of its subtropical home. But it retains this trait even when grown in mainland New Zealand.

Neither of these species are indigenous to Wellington. But both have naturalised there, and aggressively so for M. excelsa in some places. In Wellington, the ‘New Zealand Christmas tree’ is actually a weed, albeit a pretty and (usually) popular one.

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