PLANT OF THE WEEK #106: Metrosideros excelsa

There’s a favourite spot, down on the beach at Lorne, where about five Metrosideros excelsa (Pohutakawa) in an uneven row make for deep pools of welcome shade, with trunks and canopy that magically frame the view out to sea.  It’s clearly a well known location, as a recent social-media post solicited replies that arose out of evident familiarity with both the view, and the cool cafe (HAH) whose tables overlook it.

When I was down there last week, the buzz from honey bees hard at work amongst the flowers took precedence over the crashing surf. While this was likely due to the episodic nature of the former, and the constancy of the latter as you walked the nearby path, the bee-action was high-level.

But what I found most striking was how fabulously healthy the trees were, in the full blast of salt spray and sunshine.  Not that that is surprise – it reflects their natural distribution in New Zealand – but it’s always reassuring so see plants take on a high-stress environment with such obvious joy.

The oblong leaves are super-tough, palish grey-green and tomentose beneath (covered in pale hairs) when young, deeper forest green when mature.  The flowers are constructed entirely of vibrantly red stamens, forming partial pom poms on the branch tips.

Embarrassed to admit that I didn’t notice that this was a variegated form of Pohutukawa until looking at this pic. But I’m hoping that says more about how subtle the variegation is than of my poor observational skills

These specimens were about 5m tall, which, as I wrack my memory files, is probably what I’d consider about average of the plants I know in gardens.  Apparently they’re capable of about twice that.  But it’s the multi-stemmed umbrageous thing that is, to me, the most telling and useful aspect of their structure – perfect for casting deep, cooling shade under which to sit and gaze out into brilliant sunshine.  

This fabulous characteristic isn’t without its challenges.  Firstly, arriving at an outcome of a multi stemmed umbrageous tree is going to take quite a few years, during which time you have a great big stodgy evergreen lump taking up a substantial amount of space.  Secondly, I really wouldn’t want to try and garden under a canopy this dense (with root competition to match, no doubt). Definitely a tree for in gravel, or over a path, or hovering over a patch of low-grade grass.


  1. My sister in Launceston Tasmania planted a pohutakawa and found it wasn’t doing terribly well. I advised her to throw a bucket of sea water at it and it took off! In New Zealand they are very coastal and thrive in rocky outcrops with little or no soil. Ours flowers just in time for Christmas every year, which is why it is known locally as the NZ Christmas tree.

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