NATIONAL FLOWERS: This shrub-come-tree is adored by many. PHOTO: Rachel Vogan
No other plant decorates our country’s coastlines, roadsides and bushlines better than the pōhutukawa. The eruption of crimson bottlebrush-like flowers in summer makes this plant hard to miss.
Flashes of red and gold flowers paint the skyline on the large established tree forms of Metrosideros excelsa in the warmest part of the country. In cooler areas, the hardier, smaller hybrids – such as southern rātā and pōhutukawa cross M. excelsa × M. umbellata ‘Maungapiko’ can be found in flower. M. collina ‘Tahiti’, M. excelsa ‘Vibrance’, M. excelsa ‘Maori Maiden’ and the southern rātā, M. umbellata all have a similar red festive cloak of scarlet blooms.
Did you know that the name ‘pōhutukawa’ means ‘drenched with spray’? I am sure this refers to the numerous beautiful trees growing in the most random places on craggy seaside outcrops and in places where only birds live.
This regal flowering monarch deserves every accolade, and many are not aware that it isn’t actually that fussy about where it puts its roots. All it needs is protection from frosts and an area in which it can get sun pretty much all day.
Soil-wise it is happy in light sandy soils right through to heavy clay soils, as long as it’s not waterlogged for any prolonged amount of time. In pots and containers it is pretty much the same, just note they do have a large fibrous root system, so a larger pot or wine barrel is the size you want to seek out.
When plants are young, shelter all varieties from frost. The new growth is quite delicate and late frosts can easily burn and kill it, and damaged foliage means less flowers.
Birds and bees just love the nectar the flowers provide, and will often hang around the same tree for quite some time. Putting out a saucer of water will keep these garden friends around even longer, as they often leave when they are thirsty.
The flowers are best left on the plants because they sulk almost immediately in a vase – so don’t plant them as a picking option.
Salty sea winds? Not a problem. Not many plants take as kindly as pōhutukawa to growing by the seaside. The thick leathery leaves are remarkably tough to strong winds, and with such a fibrous root system you rarely see them topple over once they are established; the roots seem to have an ability to cling onto even the craggiest of rocky areas.
Plants will germinate from seed, but if you wish to grow your own, cuttings are the better option. However, you will need to wait a few years for the plant to be big enough to plant out. So, if you are like me and do not want to wait, look for a well-grown specimen to plant out now to enjoy your festive time in the garden.
For something a little different, look out for M. ‘Moon Maiden’. This one has pale creamy lime-green flowers in clusters just like the red forms. It is a compact version, too, so a good one to use as a gap filler along the fence line.