The North Island in the centuries prior to pastoral farming and introduced pests were cloaked in a fringe of red from coast to coast as the New Zealand Pohutukawa tree was in full bloom during the months of November to January, from the latitude of 38º south (New Plymouth/Gisbourne) upwards towards Cape Reinga in the north.
The species formal botanical name is _Metrosideros excelsa_, the Metrosideros is from the ancient Greek word ‘metra’ meaning ‘heartwood’ or ‘sideron’ meaning ‘iron’.
The word ‘excelsa’ is from the Latin word ‘excelsus’ meaning ‘highest’ or ‘sublime’ which is not hard to grasp when one beholds a Pohutukawa tree in all of its crimson glory of a summer time.
The oldest known Pohutukawa tree in New Zealand is at Te Araroa on the East Coast, called Te Waha O Rerekohu with its age estimated to be in excess of 350 years old, a grand age indeed and it also has the distinction of being the largest of its kind in the world.
That these trees, given the chance, have a longevity to be envied is intriguing, what is also intriguing with regard to our native Christmas tree is its presence on the other side of the world in the Atlantic coastal town of La Corunna in Spain.
The La Corunna Pohutukawa’s age has been estimated to be anywhere from 200 to 500 years old but these dates have not been offered up through any sort of dendochronological analysis as yet – a trip that was organised for New Zealand’s leading Pohutukawa dendrochronologist Dr Jonathan Palmer to visit the La Corunna tree to conduct an analysis of its age was interrupted by the Christchurch quake of 2011, so its true date is an open book for now.
Its presence and how it actually got there has been the matter of debate, some of it intelligent and articulate, some of it specious.
The discovery of the tree by New Zealander Warwick Harris and La Coruna resident Juan Pineiro occurred in 2001 and since then it’s arrival has been conjectured in mainstream academic circles to have occurred by an unknown and un-named sailor returning from the Antipodes sometime in the early 1800s.
Other theories advance the participation of either Dutch, Spanish or Portugese explorers who were known to have been in the Pacific from the early 1500s onwards.
Certainly the coasts of our country especially that north of Dargaville are littered with all manner of sunken wrecks belonging to early explorers in the decades and centuries before Cook and co.
Recently the indefatigable Noel Hilliam, former curator at the Dargaville Maritime Museum announced the discovery of the hull of a ship that was easily twice the length of a football field speculating that it could have been part of the great Chinese fleet of 1421, this wreck has yet to be fully analysed by specialists but its discovery is exciting news.
While a wreck located off Pouto Peninsula was duly subjected to dendrochronological analysis by Dr Jonathan Palmer who tentatively concluded that the ship’s hull was constructed of trees from South East Asia where the Dutch had had a dominant presence since the 1650s.
Incredibly the wood itself was dated to 1705 with the wreck occurring 1730 or thereabouts.
So it is not inconceivable that the glorious Pohutukawa tree that stands in La Corunna could have been brought home by Spanish explorers, who, after concluding the ambiguous Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494 with Portugal, claimed exclusive rights to exploration in most of the Americas and the regions between the Americas and Asia (Pacific). In other words they had the whole of the Pacific to themselves.
Not a theory scoffed at by those at the rockface of academic enquiry in 1894, the respected Doctor Thomas Hocken (immortalised in the library he accrued and donated to the country; The Hocken Library in Dunedin) and Doctor Robert McNab (famous for his own historical publications and documents library) who were both of the opinion that the true history of exploration in the Pacific had yet to be fully realised, sure were they that “doubtless before Tasman, there were voyagers who had visited New Zealand. We are justified in thinking that there are buried in the old archives of Portugal and Spain journals that would prove that.”
Or by William Faden, Royal Geographer to King George III in 1803 and also the Chart Committee of the British Admiralty, who reassessed what was known of the world. On the chart of the Indian Ocean he wrote next to New Zealand: “New Zeeland (Discovered and named by Tasman 1642 but where eastern coast was known to the Portuguese, about the year 1550).”
This presence of the Spanish and Portugese in our backyard centuries before Tasman has been wonderfully explored by author Winston Cowie in his book ‘The Conquistador Puzzle Trail’ which is full of artifacts and discoveries which put Spain and Portugal firmly in our waters from the 15th century onwards, and which has been highly praised by the Spanish and Portugese embassies here in New Zealand.
So while we ponder the vagaries of time and the curious presence of one of our more endearing native trees, the Pohutukawa, in foreign fields, we are wishing you a very happy Yule around your Christmas tree at this year’s end.