• Janice

A Travel Guide to Pohutukawa Trees: North Island, New Zealand

Updated: May 23


Maori, the first peoples of Aotearoa (New Zealand), coined the name Pohutukawa which is the common name used today. This name translates loosely from Maori to English as 'from the spray', pointing to a coastal habitat with sea spray.

The scientific name provides further insight. The generic name, Metrosideros, bestows this tree with 'iron heartwood' and the species name 'excelsus' exclaims that this tree is the 'most sublime'. Clearly, we have a magnificent, hardy coastal specimen.

Where are Pohutukawaw Trees Located?

Natural Habitat of the Pohutukawa Tree
Natural Habitat of Pohutukawa

Pohutukawa are endemic to New Zealand, as the graphic indicates, the natural distribution is along the coastlines, of the upper North Island. Interestingly, there is another cultivar found on the shores of the Rotorua Lakes (central North Island).

So, travellers will find the best specimens of Pohutukawa by exploring the coast of the upper North Island of New Zealand.

The world's largest Pohutukawa forest is on Rangitoto Island.

Planning a Day Trip to Rangitoto Island

Our trip to Rangitoto Island, in the Hauraki Gulf, was a day I will always treasure. Rangitoto is a newly formed volcanic island with the land made of infertile lava flows of scoria. The Island can be very dry because of a lack of groundwater or streams. Yet the Pohutukawa have taken root and flourished in the harsh environment. Luckily, the volcano has been inactive for over 6oo years so it is safe to visit.

We caught the Ferry from The Downtown Quay, Auckland, and enjoyed the 20-minute cruise to Rangitoto. On the island, thanks to the well-maintained walkways, I easily hiked to the summit, or in other words stood on the cone of the volcano. The view of the largest Pohutukawa forest in the world, with Auckland as a backdrop, is breathtaking. As a gardener, I am impressed that a tree can lay down roots and grow on a scoria island.

Photo Credit to Derek

When is the best time to visit a Pohutukawa Forest?

Pohutukawa burst into flower from late November and bloom through December, summertime down under. It is said the north has a rim of crimson when the Pohutukawa flower and New Zealanders refer to the Pohutukawa as 'New Zealand's Christmas Tree'.

In fact, the bloom coinciding with the Christmas season solves somewhat of an existential crisis for New Zealanders. Despite the summer season, historically New Zealanders display the icons of Christmas that reflect the Northern Hemispheres season, winter. So, we deck out with snowy scenes and Santa wearing a thick winter coat despite the heat of summer. Using the Pohutukawa as a Christmas icon goes some way towards Aotearoa/New Zealand developing an authentic identity. Now, many of the trimmings of Christmas include the colourful Pohutukawa flower! Thank goodness.

When the Pohutukawa bloom we see more than a botanical spectacle we also see birds and bees feasting on the nectar. The song of Tui rings out across the land as these cheeky birds excitedly drink their fill of nectar.

New Zealand Christmas Tree
Pohutukawa Bloom

Photo credit Janice Samsung Note 8

Pohutukawa Bloom with Bee
Pohutukawa Bloom with Bee

Photo Credit Janice

Remnants of Ancient Forests

Sadly, 90 per cent of the Pohutukawa Forest have been felled and we now see glimpses of what once was. When you visit please take pictures and show how Pohutukawa trees are bringing the tourist dollars to New Zealand. Hopefully, then the culling will stop soon.

Luckily we still have many magnificent specimens. A Pohutukawa can live for around 1000 years, grow to a height of up to 25 - 27 meters and can have a spread of over 30 meters. The tiny community of Te Aroroa, hosts the largest Pohutukawa, located on the school grounds Te Aroroa, on the East Cape of New Zealand.

We are privileged to have 2 x 600 - 800-year-old specimens on our Manganese Point property, Salt Haven. Tree huggers, me included, explore our local area and are thrilled by the gnarled trees with twisted roots clinging precariously to cliffs and hanging over waterways. There are many large specimens that would be many hundreds of years old on our doorstep. Pohutukawa supports other plant life with epiphytes and hanging roots adding to the drama. I pictured this beauty in our backyard with the epiphyte, 'Tank Lilly', cradled in her branches.

Pohutukawa with epiphytes
Gnarled branch of Pohutukawa with epiphytes - photo Janice

Weather and Coastal Conditions

Pohutukawa forests grow in the temperate/subtropical climate of the upper North Island of New Zealand. . The Pohutukawa is a coastal tree with growing conditions ranging from wild surf beaches to calm harbours and estuaries.

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