Plant profile | Pōhutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa)

What’s special about New Zealand’s native trees and forests?

New Zealand’s native trees and forests are unique. They look, smell and feel like no other forests, which is not surprising, as more than 80% of the c. 2400 native species of conifers, flowering plants and ferns in the flora as a whole occur nowhere else in the world. This remarkably high level of endemism is one of the reasons for New Zealand being recognised by Conservation International as a world biodiversity hotspot.

Field Guide Native Trees

1. Leaves are longer than wide and have a tomentum of white hairs on the underside. 2. A flamboyant young pōutukawa, seemingly unfazed by wind, salt and drought. 3. A brilliant summer display of flowers, with new leafy shoots emerging. 4. A tree with massive spreading branches and aerial roots. 5. Aerial roots like straw brooms with red growing points to the rootlets; these ‘brooms’ generally do not reach the ground, but they do on sea cliffs to anchor the tree. 6. Foliage with furry, white buds and opening flowers. 7. Fully open flowers; the yellow tips to the stamens are the pollen-containing anthers. 8. Close view of leaf underside showing the dense tomentum of white hairs. 9. Mature capsules opening to reveal the many thread-like seeds..

Metrosideros excelsa |

Pōhutukawa is the best known of the New Zealand species of Metrosideros, and it could be called the native-tree icon of the northern North Island, where it grows naturally. Referred to as the New Zealand Christmas tree, it provides a brilliant display in late December and January along the beaches and coasts. Furry tomentum confers drought- and salt-spray tolerance enabling it to inhabit such places.

Distribution & Habitat

In nature, it is found from the Three Kings Islands to Poverty Bay in the east and northern Taranaki in the west; it has been widely planted further south, and has naturalised south of its natural range. It is very salt-tolerant, preferring the coast, but is also found along lake edges in the Rotorua district.


Up to 15-20 m tall and up to 40 m wide, often with a short trunk, 1-2 m in diameter.


Grey-brown, rough and separating in thick flakes.

Foliage & Habit

Leaves are simple, opposite, smooth-margined, thick, dark glossy green, 5-10 x 2.5-3 cm, with pointed to rounded tips and a dense white tomentum on the underside, except on young plants. Twigs and flowers are also furry. Trunks branch into many massive secondary trunks, which are inclined or sometimes horizontal. Clusters of woody aerial roots often hang from spreading branches; those developing from the trunk sometimes grow down to the ground.

Flowers & Seeds

Inflorescences are at the tips of branchlets. Flowers are c. 3.5 cm long, with stamens c. 2.5 cm long, usually bright red but sometimes yellow, pink or white. Flowers produce abundant nectar. Seed capsules are c. 7 x 6 mm, containing many thread-like seeds. Flowering is from early to mid-summer, with capsules maturing from mid-summer into autumn. Pollination is by birds and lizards (geckos); seed dispersal is by wind.

Distinguishing Features

  • Flowers are red, sometimes yellow, pink or white.
  • Leaves are thick, pointed to rounded at the tip, with dense white tomentum on the underside, except on young plants.eaves are glossy and heart-shaped.
Field Guide Native Trees
NZ Native Trees

Extracted from Field Guide to New Zealand Native Trees by John Dawson

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