One reoccurring memory of my childhood is that during the hot southern hemisphere Summer we could be found celebrating Christmas Day on a sheep station… or in small township close to it.
Even after we moved to the city we still de-camped each Christmas to a friends sheep station and so we never had a Christmas Tree decorated in the traditional sense until I moved here to The Netherlands.
That’s not to say we didn’t have a Christmas Tree at all though, the difference is simply that since the South Island’s High country is mostly tussock grass, thorny Matagouri, (also a.k.a.”wild Irishman“) which is a devilish bush full of thorns (some of them easily several centimetres in length) that can turn tramping (hiking) over steep high country mountains into an art form of unintended detours as you try and find a route to evade the stuff rather than to be scratched to death painfully wading though it.
Against best advice from elders, as a teenager I attempted wading though a Matagouri stand of only knee high bushes once and only once… it was more than enough to convince me that even stupidly long detours were well worth the effort.
However the Matagouri has several redeeming features: On a botanical level, it is able to “fix nitrogen” from the air and enrich the poor soils it grows in. In fact they “give back” so much nutrition into the soil that they allow other less hardy plants to live and thrive around them.
The Matagouri is very slow growing too and can easily live long past 100 years of age. They flower around November but for some reason the ones near us flowered, or were still in flower in December so we would carefully pluck off a few of the best floral branches (yes, I know that in the North Island Matagouri is a protected species because it’s so rare, but in the South Island it grows like a weed, and anyway when I was a kid we didn’t know anything about “protected species” ).
The next “decoration” for our Christmas tree was either some lovely red Rata or Manuka flowers, (also see post: http://kiwidutch.wordpress.com/2010/06/02/new-post-96/ ) or even better if the weather was kind, a few Pōhutukawa tree flowers. Some tiny pockets of the High Country have micro climates and whilst Pōhutukawa are generally found in the North Island there some in secluded parts of the South Island too.
Usually the Fates were less than kind and the Pōhutukawa wouldn’t be in flower for long enough, so we would make do with Rata which was around in great profusion but the rare sightings of Pōhutukawa meant that it remained special to me and I was surprised when later in life I saw large groups of them in the North Island.
As a terrible gardener, I have usually not too much interest in non-food plants, but these New Zealand flowering Natives have always had a special place in my heart.
Once our “decorations” had been gathered the next step was to find a suitable pine tree in the plantation.
The Radiata Pines are wind-blown self-seeded pines for the most part, their height and fast growing properties making them excellent shelter-belts against the notorious hot dry Nor’west winds, but they are also an interloper that choke out New Zealand Natives without shame or guilt so felling them for winter firewood was never done with any remorse.
But no chain-saw or axe for our Christmas Tree, instead, after picking out the smallest one on the edge of the plantation , it stayed happily growing in the ground as we added our floral decorations to it and then stood back and admired our handiwork. If there were wild flowers around they got woven into daisy-chains and added too. Sometimes we would find a larger branch that a Nor’ West storm had ripped from a bigger tree and we would cart that back to the house, and decorate in the the same manner on the front lawn. (well, less “front lawn”and more “front paddock”).
The interesting thing was that the branch and it’s decorations always stayed outside. I didn’t find out about the “inside” tree tradition with baubles etc until much much later.
So here we are in the North Island with Pōhutukawa sightings at regular intervals, so I’m happy to take photos of a flower that I love but was a rarity in my South Island youth.
It brings back memories from my childhood and it’s even more significant that since the Pōhutukawa flowers in mid-December (more or less depending on weather and the trees geographical location) that it’s earned itself the nickname of being the “New Zealand Christmas tree”.