Nothing shouts Christmas time in Aotearoa more than the crimson bursts of bloom from the pohutukawa, our very own Kiwi Christmas tree.
Well, if you're in the South Island, perhaps not so much, since pohutukawa existed naturally in the top half or so of the North Island, but keen gardeners and landscapers all over the country have planed it in all kinds of places, and of course those beautiful flowers form the basis for our own Antipodean Christmas cards and paraphernalia.
The first mention of pohutukawa as a New Zealand Christmas tree occurred in 1867, and the moniker has stuck ever since. I think it's kind of nice really. It's odd enough that in the stifling heat of summer, much of our Christmas imagery is centred on snowmen, reindeer and the North Pole.
Back here in New Zealand, when you're in your togs on Christmas Day having just tried out the kids' new Slip 'n' Slide (NB: Dear Santa, I would LOVE a Slip 'n' Slide this year!), munching on your third snarler, it's difficult to feel connected to a Christmas centred on winter. Personally, I love the images of beaches, camping, pohutukawa blossoms and seeing people out fishing, boating, tramping and trying out their new tents.
The pohutukawa is truly a beautiful tree, reaching 25 metres tall, and with a crown that can spread over 30m (great for a natural sunshade for picnics). Those gnarled trunks and branches are perfect for climbing or throwing wet towels over as you dry out between swims in the sea.
We're quite lucky to still have pohutukawa and its cousins the northern and southern rata, since by 1990, scientists had discovered that we'd lost around 90 per cent of our coastal pohutukawa trees, mostly through forestry and land clearance, but also, pertinently, through possums. Turns out those pesky varmints see pohutukawa (and rata) trees much as I see a frozen berry yoghurt cone from my favourite vege shop. In fact, scientists even call these trees "ice cream plants" to possums, who instead of nonchalantly browsing anything in the bush will seek and destroy pohutukawa and rata as a priority if they notice any in the vicinity. All the more reason to get your possum control on this summer!
Fortunately, in 1990 the wonderful programme Project Crimson began to help restore our New Zealand Christmas tree to where it belonged (and beyond). Since the inception of Project Crimson, thousands of trees have been planted and slowly but surely the crimson crown is returning to New Zealand forests.
Photo: for the South Islanders not as familiar with pohutukawa, the Southern rata blooms in summer too.
For Maori, the pohutukawa is very important. One of the first ancestral waka to arrive in New Zealand paddled into Kawhia Harbour and was tied to a pohutukawa tree that is still living on the cliff today! In a spiritual sense, the small gnarled pohutukawa tree at the end of Cape Reinga is the "leaping off" point for spirits passing back to their traditional homeland of Hawaiiki.
So for all of those reasons, I embrace the beautiful and symbolic pohutukawa tree as our traditional Christmas icon - a sign of cheer, warm weather and who we are as a nation. In fact, I might just vote for it in this year's New Zealand Plant Conservation Network favourite plant competition. What will you vote for?
As for me, this has been a pretty good year - new husband, new job, new house and of course beginning the In Our Nature blog - it's been a busy old time all right! I intend on doing very little over my Christmas break except for fishing for one of these GIANT fish in the canals in the Mackenzie Country and yes, of course, heading to Kaikoura for some more camping and collecting paua. I have really loved all of your comments and emails and interactions this year - and I hope you are still enjoying In Our Nature. I'm always keen to hear your feedback and questions and I look forward to more nature nerd conversations in the New Year.
Thanks again and wishing you a lovely relaxing happy holidays - looking forward to catching you all in the New Year. Best and lots of nature nerdy love, Nicola (and Nemo).
A very merry Christmas from Nemo too (in the nanosecond before he rolled on the hat and ran around with it in his mouth!).
What are you doing for Christmas? Will you have some time out to enjoy the great Kiwi summer? I'd love to hear about it.