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The time for traditions

For the New Zealand gardener, Christmas comes with a mass of plant traditions, some imported from the Northern Hemisphere, while others are more homegrown.

The plants traditionally associated with a European Christmas – the holly and the ivy, the mistletoe and the coniferous Christmas tree, have a common trait – they are all evergreen. Their use in mid-winter festivals predates Christianity, usually being used as tokens to ward off bad spirits, and to celebrate new growth. The holly was taken up as part of Christian iconography, the armoured leaves representing the crown of thorns, and the bright red berries symbolising his blood.

The mistletoe was also a sacred plant, representing love and friendship in Scandinavian countries. IT was also associated with Druidic rituals.

Traditions connected to a decorated evergreen tree [usually coniferous] are much more recent, starting in the 16th century in Germany and being brought into popularity in England when the German Prince Albert married Queen Victoria.

A search through New Zealand newspapers finds scant early references to Christmas trees – just one in 1852, then another in 1854, specifically mentioning the German connection. But perhaps remarkably, the next mention I found in a search of PapersPast, the online database of New Zealand newspapers, is from January 1858, when the Hawke’s Bay Herald’s Auckland correspondent reported on a Christmas feast hosted by Ngapuhi rangatira Patuone. They reported that the many guests were hosted in a large tent, decorated with branches and flowers of the scarlet pohutukawa, or “Christmas Tree”.

This tree has now become embedded in Kiwiana – few New Zealand Christmas cards that show our landscape do not have the blooms of a bright red pohutukawa on them somewhere.

Oddly enough, although we think of the pohutukawa as having bright red flowers, in most cases the flowers are quite a dull crimson colour. During a stroll around Wellington at the weekend I saw many deeper coloured specimens, but also a few with much brighter scarlet flowers. It is possible to plant cutting-grown pohutukawa, so if you want a brighter coloured form, you could choose the more compact growing variety ‘Scarlet Pimpernel ’or the slightly darker coloured ‘Vibrance’.

There are also some yellow flowered varieties – I watched a succession of tui scrapping over access to a large yellow tree at the weekend. There are a few cultivars with yellowish flowers, but none are daffodil gold. Nonetheless, they are attractive plants, if not quite as striking as the bright red flowered forms. Among the types available are the old variety ‘Aurea’, or the newer ‘Moon Maiden’.

In the wild there are many different shades, and some varieties have been selected and introduced to the trade. The New Plymouth nursery firm of Duncan and Davies introduced quite a few, including the best-known pink form, ‘Pink Lady’. The Auckland nurseryman Graeme Platt introduced a white flowered form, ‘White Lady’, still quite rare in cultivation.

In the wild, the natural range of this species is almost entirely coastal, and only in the top half of the North Island, roughly from New Plymouth and Gisborne north. However, due to their elevation into a de factor national flower, they are now grown in many more-or-less warm areas of the country, including Wairarapa. Here, they are best grown at the coast, but with a bit of careful tending, they can even be grown in the inland towns.

Some years ago, the Head Gardener’s brother gave her a pohutukawa for Christmas. I scoffed at the gift, saying it would not survive our climate, much less thrive. With her usual enthusiasm, she planted it in a large ceramic container and, by shifting up onto our patio, where [needless to say] it flourished heartily.

I also told her that, as it was grown from seed, it would be many years before it flowered. Wrong again – within the first couple of years it pushed out lovely brushes of bright red flowers. It hasn’t flowered this year, but remains healthy and growing lustily.

The other southern Christmas flower is the Regal Lily, more commonly called the Christmas Lily in New Zealand. This is the perfect Christmas flower as it will reliably come into flower in the week leading up to Christmas. It has shining white flowers, usually with deeper markings on the back of its petals, and also has a bright golden centre. The fragrance is very pronounced – it will waft across the garden on a still summer’s evening. The Head Gardener’s family have grown this for generations, and we have three or four clumps in the garden. One clump, grown from seed, grows to nearly two metres, but the others peak about 1.5 metres. Unlike many lilies, this one is quite easily grown – just make sure it is grown in as much sun as you can muster, and in well-drained soil.

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