Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Pohutukawa - New Zealand " Christmas Tree"

Pohutukawa - Metrosideros excelsa
Pohutukawa - this tree is symbol of birth and rebirth. Pohutukawa is also known as the New Zealand " Christmas Tree." This is because of its vibrant crimson flowers that deck the Pohutukawa along the coasts of New Zealand. Pohutukawa is a part of the past of many family stories - those holidays spent " at the beach." 

At the beach - flowering pohutukawa a reminder of Christmas - photo courtesy Chris Ball
Early settlers from Britain homesick for home decorated their new home with garlands of Pohutukawa flower at Christmas. The Daily Southern Cross in 1866 was to write:-

" Many of out shopkeepers have been busy during the last few days in making the preparations usual at Christmas time in Auckland, in furnishing up their business premises, and rendering the interiors unusually attractive to their customers equally with sightseers. Natives from the neighbouring settlements have brought into town large quantities of pohutukawa branches and toitoi grass, the usual materials for decoration in Auckland at this season. Native tradition tells us that the beautiful sombre red blossoms of the pohutukawa gladdened the hearts of the Maoris when they looked from their canoes on reaching New Zealand after their long voyage from Hawaiki and these blossoms have been adopted here by Anglo-Saxons as a substitute for the holly and mistletoe of Old England. The butchers, as the furnishers of the chief part of Christmas cheer, take the lead in adorning their places of business. "
                            THE CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS. The Daily Southern Cross 25 December 1866,P.4

Flowering Pohutukawa Tairua December 2017 - photo courtesy Chris Ball
The Coromandel Peninsula of New Zealand has become particularly well known for the  blaze of crimson colour of Pohutukawa along its rocky coastline and sandy beaches.
Pohutukawa in Flower near Mataora Native  School - photo CRB 2002
Flowering Pohutukawa on hillside Pauanui Photo CRB 2013
Pohutukawa flowering, to me, is a reminder of the poems and drawings of artist Rei Hamon. From these I have learned the tenacity and nurturing of this tree in his inspirational drawings. Rei Hamon, after badly injuring his back while working in a roading gang, took up drawing using a style called pointillism - the drawing consisting of millions of tiny dots. 

In these he portrayed the trees and birds of the Coromandel Bush he loved. Along with a conservation message on the need to preserve and protect before it becomes a "lost heritage." 

Today in 2013 we have " Project Crimson" - a Pohutukawa restoration project that is helping to restore this tree along the coast. In areas such as Otahu where once fire ravaged these trees.

Flowering Pohutukawa 2017 - photo courtesy Chris Ball
In parts Pohutukawa clings tenaciously to the rocks and cliffs, gnarled branches providing homes for seabirds and tiny insects.

Some stories relating to Pohutukawa on the Coromandel have almost become lost,even though a part of the past  in days before New Zealand bush had given way to farmland and " baches" by the beach. The days when there were also large Pohutukawa forests. 

Gathering Pohutukawa for Christmas decorations was not always straightforward it would seem. An account ,read in the Thames Advertiser, reported a gathering expedition by three boys ending up with one spending the night in the bush without food - fortunately found the next day by neighbours, Joseph Tredennick and James Dunn.

" A little  fellow named Walter Sully lost himself in the bush at the head of the Hape Creek on Monday last, and was not found until the following day, when a search party went out to look for him. It appears that Sully and two other youths, named Alfred Billings and James Naughton, went out on Monday morning to gather pohutukawa and nikau for Christmas decorations, and Sully wandered away into the dense bush up the Hape Creek, and became lost to his companions. They were not alarmed at the time, thinking he would turn up later in the day."

                                                       Thames Advertiser, 27 December 1877, P. 2

This part of the past was goldmining in the Hape Area of  what is now known as Thames.
Pohutukawa in Flower on Reserve at Thames - Photo CRB December 2014

Shipbuilding with Pohutukawa

Puketui Valley in 2010 - 
still mainly reliant on tracks across the range - photo CRB
The early European settlers in New Zealand relied on coasters - small cutters and schooners for transport of people, livestock and goods. There were no roads in those early days- only tracks through bush and swamp lands in that part of the past of New Zealand history.
Many are the stories in that part of the past of the cutters and schooners built, using Pohutukawa for framing.

Sir John Logan Campbell endowing the people of New Zealand in 1901 with the park now known as Cornwall Park, was to reflect back 61 years earlier to one of his first experiences of Coromandel Peninsula shores in New Zealand back in 1840. He wrote an account of  this experience in his book "Poenamo" which was published in 1881.

"   We are sailing into Waioh and turning sharply to the left; in a few minutes we have dropped our anchor. We are in a beautiful little land-locked circular harbour, but with hardly deep-water anchorage for more than half a dozen large ships to swing clear, though room enough for a large fleet of small craft. The shore shoals suddenly all round, where it meets the flat land at the base of the high range of hills forming the background; a steep range more than a thousand feet high, timber-covered to the very summit with evergreen foliage. Snow never falls on these hills. Between the spurs sloping down towards the shore are tiny, beautiful valleys, in which native villages can be seen nestling picturesquely. We are lying off a small island which forms part of the small harbour; we can see not far off a narrow passage between the island and the mainland, so narrow that I was often afterwards navigated across it on the back of a Maori wahine when none of the male sex were at hand. Abreast of us there is quite a pretty little bay and fine beach. We can see an incongruous collection of buildings, some weather-boarded, some evidently of native construction; then again there are quite a number of log-huts, and there is the frame of a small craft on the stocks with all her ribs nearly completed. This little bay rejoiced in the name of Herekino (be pleased to pronounce the word thus: He-ree-kee-no) when I knew it in those days of yore.n And here lived and reigned the King of Waiou. The king was not a Maori king - he was a Yankee one, known as big W____ by the Pakehas, and as Waipeha by the Maories."  
( Campbell, J.L.,1881 P. )
This place, initially with the name Herekino, later became known as Beeson's Island. John Logan Campbell also referred to the Pohutukawa Grove he saw on this Island in those early years of European Settlement.

Building of these coasters took place in a number of  coastal settlements. One such in Tairua and not many years  after a Sawmill  opened in 1865. The newspapers reported the launching and maiden voyage of a cutter Coralie with a cargo which included pohutukawa knees- used in shipbuilding :-

 " The new cutter Coralie, 28 tons, Jackson, master, has arrived from Tairua. She is a trim vessel with good carrying powers, and was built by George Thorpe at the port from which she  now arrives. She brings as cargo 19 tons gum, pohutukawa knees, 500 feet timber, 1 engine, 1 boiler, 2 cases machinery; 3 bundles iron, 25 empty casks, 3 bundles sheepskins, 3 bundles hides."
                            THE RUMOURED WRECK OF THE AMATEUR.—A SELL. Auckland Star, 5 February 1874, P 2

Pohutukawa in flower at Tairua  December 2017 - photo courtesy Chris Ball

The story of Coralie is typical of many of the cutters and schooners in part of the past NZ History  - the coasters - of Coromandel Peninsula Coasts in the 19th Century. From 1874, until her final shipwreck at Waikopupu Harbour in 1900 , she plied the coasts including Tairua,  over the years to assist with other shipwrecks along with carrying cargoes of mining supplies, timber, gum and passengers.

Top Sail Cutter, Clio Family photo

Pohutukawa timbers for me, is a reminder of a "boat named Clio" - a  topsail cutter originally built near Whangarei in 1892 using puriri (another New Zealand native tree ) and pohutukawa for framing.

 Clio was typical  the small coastal vessels- the cutters and schooners - being built during the 1800's. Some would say that she was a small boat but she was typical of many of the coasters of this era.

 This cutter in 102 years of service spent a number of years on the coasts of the Coromandel Peninsula, based at Tairua and Whangamata. During this time she ran aground at Cooks Beach and when the boat builder was  repairing her, the pohutukawa framing was found. 

Clio was a special boat in our family stories.

 Kirk in the book Forest Flora of New Zealand, published in 1889 produced drawing of Pohutukawa and wrote about its distribution and uses. 

Although Kirk was to note that Pohutukawa strongly resisted the "dread" toredo worm and its deep red woods were very useful for ships timbers, he also deplored its wanton destruction.( Kirk,1889, p 237) 

Gnarled Trunk of Pohutukawa photo CRB 2013

Into a new century and newspapers report yet more accounts  of the flowering pohutukawa. This time when two travellers on the white horse track finally leave fire ravaged countryside to arrive at Whangamata shores:-

 “ In time we descended to the shores of the Whangamata Harbour, and had to ride along the mud flats, but it brought us one of the finest sights in the way of flowering trees that I have ever seen. Late in the evening we came to a long, narrow peninsula jutting out into the harbour. The peninsula was fringed with a belt of noble pohutukawas, which were one mass of crimson blossom. The tide had risen, and we had to ride in the shallow water to escape the low spreading branches, and the reflection of the flowers made the water a vivid red, so that when the horses churned it up it looked like — well, I can't find a simile that isn't gory.”

CHAPTER VI. New Zealand Illustrated Magazine 1 November 1902,P 88  In Search of a Fortune.
Looking at photos taken of Pohutukawa along the harbours edge in 2012, it is no wonder A Pick, the author,  wrote glowingly in the 1902 article.

Whangamata Harbour Shoreline photo CRB 2012

Pohutukawa continued to be written about - the trees  symbols of christmas, poets and song writers "waxing" on the beauty of this tree. Pohutukawa is a memory of watering trees planted near the reserve by the boat club at Whangamata, so people would have a place to picnic in later years.(Thank you to the three people who organised the planting of .) 
It is the memory of holding on to one Pohutukawa in a storm, on the South Beach Whangamata so it would stay to provide shelter for future generations. It survived and so did the other one - typical of this tree's tenacity. 

Bushmen valued the properties of the inner layers of bark as a remedy for dysentery. (some bush camps on the Coromandel Peninsula of the 1800s and early 1900s were not within proximity to doctors and chemists )

Today in 2013, artists on the Coromandel Peninsula, have captured the beauty of flowering Pohutukawa in paintings, the finely carved flowers from wood of Megan Godfrey’s carvings, the beautiful christmas decorations made from flax by Kaetaeta Watson portraying Pohutukawa. Yes in 2013 the flowering Pohutukawa is definitely ensconced as our Christmas Trees and a clear reminder of those holidays at the beach - fishing, swimming and yes sitting under the shade of Pohutukawa - so much a part of the past of New Zealand History.

              Pohutukawa, Mayor Island photo from G Macgregor and  D Ball 2013                                                                            

Baches referred to in this blog are a North Island New Zealand term for holiday home or holiday cottage. In South Island New Zealand they are called Cribs.

  •  Campbell, John Logan. Poenamu. London: Williams and Norgate, 1881.Also can be read online ENZB Early New Zealand Books  
  • Ingram, Chas.W.N. and Wheatley, P Owen. Shipwrecks New Zealand Disasters 1795 - 1936. Dunedin: Dunedin Book Publishing Association, 1936. 
  • Kirk, T. F.L.S. The Forest Flora of New Zealand. Wellington: Government Printers, 1889.
  • Newspapers Thames Advertiser, Daily Southern Cross, New Zealand Illustrated Magazine -Papers Past, National Library New Zealand