Nothing may compare to the pohutukawa or rata tree at your favourite holiday spot, but we can all enjoy a touch of that crimson splendour at home in the garden.
Pohutukawa and rata adorn our coastlines and forests from one tip of Aotearoa to the other. Both members of the plant genus Metrosideros, these majestic, slow growing trees can live over 1000 years.
Our coastal classic pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa) is queen of the windswept sea cliffs primarily of the North Island and its outlying islands. In climates too chilly for pohutukawa, her southern sisters take over, flaunting their brilliant orange-scarlet flowers from November to January. Southern rata (Metrosideros umbellata) thrives in high-rainfall forests of the South Island’s west coast and is common on Stewart? Island. Northern rata (Metrosideros robusta) is found mainly in the North Island and the north of the South Island.
Metrosideros means "iron-hearted". The timber is exceptionally hard and has a beautiful red colour. Maori used pohutukawa to make tools and in boat building. Dark red rata timber was prized for carving.
Pohutukawa have olive green leathery leaves, while rata leaves are dark green and glossy. While a rata tree will smother itself in bloom only once every few years, with minimal flowering during the in-between years, a pohutukawa will generally bloom every summer, once it reaches flowering age.
Tui, bellbird, kaka and other native birds are frequent visitors to both pohutukawa and rata flowers. The nectar is sought by honeybees which make our beautiful rata and pohutukawa honey. Sadly, the trees are also loved by possums, capable of killing a mature tree within a few years.
Metrosideros grow easily from seed and will freely interbreed in the wild. This leads to each tree having slightly different genes from its neighbour, a natural diversity that has in turn led to some excellent selections being developed for gardens. When nursery professionals discover a naturally occurring tree with superior traits (such as tidy shape, early flowering, bigger and brighter blooms, sheer volume of blooms or compact size, they are able to propagate it by cuttings. And hence we gardeners can choose a named variety that grows ‘true to type’ and meets our needs.
Adding to the selection are some close relatives of the rata and pohutukawa that exist throughout the South Pacific. Many of these look almost identical to our New Zealand species, but they will often bloom at different times of the year. Even if your garden is tiny, you can enjoy a splash of that crimson glory in your own backyard.
Here are some favourites. Not all are widely available in any particular season, but Go Gardening centres are always happy to help you find the right plant to suit your needs.
Few gardens have the space for a huge pohutukawa tree and their vigorous roots mean its important not to plant too close to buildings. However, because they respond well to pruning and trimming, pohutukawa are easily adapted to small spaces. They are fantastic as shelter hedging, or can trimmed as tidy silhouettes in a mixed planting. With annual trimming they can even be restrained in a large tub. By selectively removing branches, trees can be trained to a more open structure to maintain a view or let in more light.
Metrosideros 'Tahitian Sunset'