Scientific name: Metrosideros excelsa
Plant type: Evergreen tree
Environment: Full sun, well-drained soil
Bloom: Masses of bright red flowers, occasionally orange, pink, white, or yellow
Uses: Screen or hedge planting
New Zealand Garden – 62C, 63B, 63C, 66D
South Africa – 27H, 27I
Mesoamerican Cloud Forest - 14B, 16A, 25B, 25D
The pōhutukawa or New Zealand Christmas tree (Metrosideros excelsa) is an imposing evergreen tree species native to the North Island of New Zealand. With its bright flowers and distinct aerial roots Metrosideros excelsa is a popular ornamental tree around the world with cultural significance to the Māori people.
The name pōhutukawa is a Māori word, and the species is of great cultural significance for the Māori. One tree in particular in Cape Reinga is over 800 years old and is believed to be where spirits begin their journey to Hawaiki, the traditional homeland of the Māori. According to tradition, spirits will descend the roots of the tree to the underworld where their journey will begin. The tree is also used in various forms in traditional Māori healing practices and cultural uses.
In its native range, M. excelsa flowers around Christmastime, becoming flush with bright red flowers, though occasionally they will be pink, orange, yellow or white, giving the tree its English common name New Zealand Christmas tree. The first published reference to this name came in a December 1857 newspaper article about a feast held by a Māori chief where the flowers were used as part of the decor. Today, it is a popular Christmastime image in New Zealand with a Christmas carol referencing the species and its image often appearing in Christmas cards.
Metrosideros excelsa is popular in cultivation in both New Zealand and abroad. Here in San Francisco, where the species was first introduced in the mid-19th century, it is seen throughout the city as a street tree, where it thrives due to our mild climate. Within its native range, however, M. excelsa faces threats from fungal diseases and nonnative possums that strip the trees of their leaves. Work continues in New Zealand through restoration projects and possum control to protect this important species for generations to come.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS: Text and Profile by Victoria Stewart.