Today’s Advent Botany post takes us Down Under again – this time to New Zealand. The Pohutukawa tree has deep significance in Māori culture. It has become firmly associated with Christmas for all New Zealanders. Its stunning, red flowers put on a spectacular display during the seasonal period. The tree has a strong sense of national identity for New Zealanders. The flowers feature on New Zealand Christmas cards. There is also a charming action song for young children in both English and Māori that highlights how the tree grows.
Latin Name Origin
The Pohutukawa tree bears the Latin name Metrosideros excelsa. It is a member of the Myrtaceae or Myrtle family. The Latin name originates from Ancient Greek metra meaning core or heart and sideron meaning iron. The epithet excelsa means lofty or high. The genus name was first applied by the German-born botanist, Georg Eberhard Rumphius (1627-1702), in 1743. He was based in Indonesia as an employee of the Dutch East India Company. He used the genus name for a group of hard-wooded timber trees there. The first valid publication of Metrosideros excelsa came in 1788 and is attributed to the German botanist, Joseph Gaertner (1732-1791). A plant’s name is not recognised as valid until it is named and described in an accepted botanical, printed publication.
It is not unprecedented for a binomial to be based on an indigenous plant name. The majority of botanists tended to name plants after botanical friends and acquaintances. Many of the 18th century associations are now meaningless to us today. In hindsight, it seems a particular shame that the Māori name for New Zealand’s Christmas tree is not preserved in its binomial. It must have predated 1788 and any access to publication. The way that colonial powers have overridden indigenous plant names is increasingly being called into question today.
Māori Name Origin
Māori tradition recognises the Pohutukawa as the tree of chiefs for its combined strength and beauty. It is reputed to mean ‘splashed by spray‘ in an allusion to its harsh, salty, native coastal habitat. The Māori word hutukawa refers to a headdress of red feathers that vividly reflect the flowers’ numerous, crimson stamens.
The Pohutukawa tree is even more important to Māori culture than so far described. It is also a sacred tree. One particular tree holds great significance for the Māori. It inhabits rocky site in Cape Reinga. It marks the spot where they believe that the spirits of the dead leave our world to descend down its roots into the underworld. So begins the deceased’s journey to their ancestral homeland of Hawaiki.
Given the huge cultural importance of the Pohutukawa to New Zealanders, it is all the more worrying that the tree’s survival is considered under threat. The species has declined by 90% since human settlement began. The trees have retreated northwards. Populations are now fragmented. Many of the native bird pollinators have regrettably declined too. It provides a copious supply of nectar for pollinators by both day and night. Efforts are under way to ensure the Pohutukawa’s survival.
As it’s Advent, let’s end on a cheery note with the children’s song about this much loved New Zealand Christmas Tree. Links to YouTube videos appear below.
Pohutukawa Song Versions on YouTube
Pohutukawa Tree Waiata with Lyrics. English and Māori. New Zealand Christmas Song. Pohutukawa. Love to Sing. YouTube. 2 December 2016
I am a Pohutukawa seed, Plant me in the ground and water me. Plenty of sunshine is what I need, Then guess what you will see? Out will shoot a tiny twig And it will continue to grow so big, Beautiful flowers of whero, The native tree of Aotearoa. Chorus Pohutukawa tree, Pohutukawa tree, New Zealand’s Christmas tree, You fill my heart with aroha, The native tree of Aotearoa. He kakano Pohutukawa Poua ki te whenua Nga hihi o te ra, hei oranga Hihiri pupuke, te kune e. He ira ki te whai ao Ka tipu, tu, ka roa Uhia I te raukura Ko koe no Aotearoa. Tu mai ra Pohutukawa Tu whakahi ki te ao Pupu ake ko te aroha Ko koe no Aotearoa. Repeat chorus (Source: Love to Sing)
References and Further Reading
- Bylsma, R. J. & Clarkson, B. D. & Efford J.T. (2014): Biological flora of New Zealand 14: Metrosideros excelsa, pōhutukawa, New Zealand Christmas tree. New Zealand Journal of Botany. Volume 52, 2014 – Issue 3, pp. 365-385. 2 October 2014.
- Global Trees Campaign (2020): New Zealand Christmas Tree. Threatened Trees.
- NZ History (2016): Pohutukawa trees. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 14 December 2016
- Smith, Stephanie (2000): Project Crimson. February 2000.
- Venell, Robert (2014): Pohutukawa – Metrosideros excelsa. The Meaning of Trees.
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