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The genuine Kiwi Christmas tree

21 Dec 2019 48.4.33 1866 x 2500

Held in Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection are a group of watercolours by Georgina Burne Hetley, an early botanical artist who used her talent to capture both the beauty and scientific details of New Zealand’s flora. In this one titled, Metrosideros excelsa, painted in 1884, she has detailed part of a pōhutukawa branch showing the leaves and flowers. To the left of the main painting is a smaller, more concise depiction of the flower and stamen.

Botanical painting was considered a desirable accomplishment and a liberating occupation for European women. For those particularly adept at painting native flora, it provided an excuse to go on expeditions looking for specimens to study. Traditionally it was unacceptable for women to travel relatively unaccompanied into New Zealand’s backcountry, however these painting trips were considered respectable, with the artists searching for exotic and rare botanical specimens to paint.

Technical accuracy was essential if the botanical work was to be respected in scientific scholarly circles. Georgina Hetley’s watercolours of native plants were considered extremely accurate by her peers. When she proposed producing a botanical book, her venture was supported by the government in the form of free rail travel. The New Zealand government also committed to purchasing copies of the book for public schools and libraries.

Ever adventurous, Georgina was able to travel throughout New Zealand revelling, not only in the wonderfully diverse botanical treasures discovered, but in the scenery as well. Georgina’s book “The Native Flowers of New Zealand” was published in three parts in 1887-88, and as a single volume in 1888.

The pōhutukawa tree is endemic to Aotearoa, New Zealand. As early as 1833, missionary Henry Williams held a Christmas day service in the Bay of Islands under a ‘wide, spreading pōhutukawa’. While the first known published reference to the pōhutukawa was in 1857, when “flowers of the scarlet Pōhutukawa, or Christmas tree” formed part of table decorations at a feast put on by Ngāpuhi leader, Eruera Patuone. Also known as the ‘Antipodean holly’, settlers would festoon their churches and homes with branches and flowers from the beautiful pōhutukawa, in readiness for Christmas day.

Pōhutukawa and rātā hold a prominent place in Māori mythology. Legends tell of young Māori warrior, Tāwhaki, and his attempt to find help in heaven to avenge his father's death. He subsequently fell to earth and the crimson flowers represent his blood.

The pōhutukawa’s blazing crimson flowers have become an established part of iconic New Zealand Christmas tradition, and an important symbol for Kiwis both home and abroad. During Christmas holidays in my youth, families would pack up their tent and camping paraphernalia, attach most of it onto the car’s roof-rack with rope and jauntily set off for an adventure and well-deserved holiday. If the destination was Te Kaha on the East Coast, there were many spots along the winding gravel road where a tent could be pitched under the sweeping and twisted branches of the pōhutukawa trees that cloaked the foreshore.

During the family sojourn, the pōhutukawa under which the tent was pitched, became a familiar and comforting friend. Children spent many hours climbing the gnarled branches, building huts and making sandcastles at its base. Meanwhile, the adults, on a sleepy afternoon, would sit or lay under the protective shade of the branches, out of the reach of the sun’s rays, slowly being lulled to sleep by the leaves rustling in the breeze and the gentle rhythm of the sea.

When it was time to leave, a thick layer of brilliant crimson red petals, fallen from the pōhutukawa flowers, would have amassed on the roof of the tent. Although most were easily brushed from the surface, itinerant petals became captured amongst the folds of the canvas. Once home, when the tent was laid out to dry before being packed away in readiness for the next holiday, petals would be dislodged. The sight of the petals would trigger poignant, happy memories of long hot summer days spent with friends and family in, on, around and under these magnificent pōhutukawa trees.


Laura and the team at MTG wish you all a wonderful holiday season and hope that some of your days are spent under the trusting arms of the pōhutukawa.

22 December 2019

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