It’s that time of the year again, the time when it’s obvious where HG Wells got his inspiration from. Yes, the pohutukawas are in flower or, more to the point, are losing their flowers and turning the ground beneath them red, much like the Martians’ weed does in The War of the Worlds.
To northern hemisphere eyes the pohutukawa looks unusual. Traditional trees have a thick trunk growing skywards until a point high up where it splits and becomes twig and leaf-laden branches to form the crown. Pohutukawas like to make the most of their space, spreading multiple branches from ground level which twist sideways as well as upwards. They aren’t the sort of trees that like the company of others within a forest. The first time I saw one, wider than it was high, shreds of red thread scattered across the grass beneath it, I had no idea what I was looking at. I studied my new Native Trees of New Zealand book to find out what it was. I couldn’t tell Neil because I didn’t know how to pronounce it. It took me a couple of years to remember which order the syllables fell in and to learn how to say the word without stumbling over them.
The pohutukawa is known as New Zealand’s Christmas tree. I presume this is because it flowers in December, and that those flowers are red which, against the (grey) green of its leaves, ticks the box for traditional Christmas colouring. Certainly the appearance of crimson decoration along pavements and paths underneath a tree signals the advent of the season. The straggly strands that fall from a pohutukawa flower get trapped in everything in the vicinity: gutters, pavement cracks, spider’s webs, other plants. Basically anything left outside, including cars. Even on the hottest day, when the spreading branches of a pohutukawa provide the only available shade, Neil flatly refuses to park the car under one as he doesn’t want to spend the next few months picking bits of red out of its crevices. I did it once. Late for an appointment in the city, I was surprised to find an easy park under the wide branches of a pohutukawa. When I returned a couple of hours later I realised why. Not only had the car acquired a furry red coat, it was also splattered with the evidence that the tree was a popular roosting spot for birds. It wasn’t one of the best days of our marriage.
Legend has it that if the pohutukawa flowers early we will have a long hot summer. I’ve never noticed any material difference in the timing of its blooming over the last couple of decades. I have, however, noticed vast differences in the summers that followed the festive season, so forgive me if I dress my scepticism in a cloak of experience. Neighbouring trees don’t even flower at the same time. My vivid imagination hears a between-tree argument:
‘Well, I think it’s going to be long and hot so I’m blooming.’
‘Rubbish! Cold and wet with a few days of sun; my flowers are staying hidden for weeks yet.’
This year the argument rages as usual. Possibly even the pohutukawa is confused, most days recently being a mix of a sun that will burn you within seconds and rain so heavy it will wash your suncream off in the same amount of time. I hope the early bloomers are proved right.
Pohutukawa don’t grow in Ohakune – they don’t like cold and only exist naturally north of Rotorua. They’ve migrated to Wellington with the help of human hands and now line many streets, adding colour to the cityscape. I miss them when we’re in Ohakune over Christmas.
‘Tis the season, so time for a singalong – all together now, to the tune of Partridge in a Pear Tree (and why on earth you would find such a bird in such a tree I don’t know):
On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a tui in a pohutukawa…