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The pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa) is the national plant of New Zealand. Along with the kauri, it is perhaps the most impressive and beloved of New Zealand's native trees. Pohutukawas are native to the upper North Island, but have been replanted throughout the milder areas of New Zealand. They grow best close to the sea; their deep roots and tough, adaptable nature enable them to grow even on steep banks or in rock crevices, and their branches sometimes stretch out almost horizontally to overhang the water. In coastal forests, the pohutukawa can grow into a spreading, broad-crowned tree over 20 metres in height, with a short, stout trunk up to 2 metres in diameter. On exposed, barren rock faces, pohutukawas may grow to little over a metre in height, but will still flower profusely.

The pohutukawa is in flower from December to January; its spectacular crimson blossoms are a well-known sight to most New Zealanders. The first English settlers substituted pohutukawa flowers for holly as Christmas decorations, and it was they who gave the pohutukawa its European name, the Christmas tree. In addition to their brilliant appearance, pohutukawa flowers are rich in nectar and attract myriads of bees and birds. Pohutukawas produce a distinctive, salty honey.

Young pohutukawas are bushy and tight to the ground; after they reach about 7 metres, they develop their characteristically gnarled, twisted spreading branches. Pohutukawa leaves are 2 to 10 cm long, and are lanceolate to broadly oblong in shape. They have a glossy surface, with a white, tomentose underside. Inflorescences are in pairs at branchlet tips. Pedicels, peduncles and calyces are covered with a white tomentum. The red stamens are are the most conspicuous part of the flower, but there are also small red petals, tomentose sepals and a nectar cup surrounding the style. Pohutukawa wood is deep red in color, and is strong and durable. The branches are of great value in boatbuilding.

Pohutukawas in Maori Tradition

According to Maori mythology, the warrior Tawhaki climbed to heaven to seek the aid of the dog bands of Tama-i-Waho in avenging his father's death. In the uppermost heavens, he found Tama's dogs, but Tama caused him to fall to his death. Tawhaki's blood gave the pohutukawa trees their red coloration.

The Arawa canoe first landed in Aotearoa at the Bay of Islands. The chief Tauninihi, who was aboard the canoe, wore a kura (a headdress of red feathers). When he saw masses of red lining the shore, he mistook them for red-feathered birds. Assuming more kura were awaiting on the shore, he cast his headdress into the water. When the voyagers made land, Tauninihi found to his chagrin that the distant feathers were really fragile pohutukawa blossoms, which wilted soon after being picked. Tauninihi's discarded headdress was found by a man named Mahina, who refused to return it when approached by Tauninihi. Hence the Maori saying, "te kura pae Mahina" (the cast-away kura of Mahina), which is roughly analogous to the English saying finders keepers.

The largest pohutukawa in New Zealand grows at Te Araroa. It has a height of 19.81 metres and a spread of 38.4 metres and is reputed to be over 300 years old. Rerekohu, a great ancestor of the Te Araroa area, used to store his food in a pataka (a raised storehouse) by the giant tree; for this reason, the tree was given the name Te Waha o Rerekohu, the mouth of Rerekohu.

Maori planted pohutukawa to mark the burial places of chiefs, battlefields where warriors had fallen, and the birth of a chief's son.

On a small promontory at the tip of Cape Reinga (one of the northernmost points of the North Island) is a pohutukawa tree said to be over 800 years old. After death, Maori believe that their spirits travel to this tree and slide down a root to fall into the sea below, where Tatau-o-te-Po (the gateway to the hereafter) lies. To Maori, saying someone "has slid down the pohutukawa root" is a way of saying they have died.

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