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Belonging to the myrtle family the same family as Manuka, its closest relative is the Rata and to the untrained eye, they can be hard to tell apart. Pohutukawa can be distinguished by its larger leaves and larger blossums. Pohutukawa blossums are a red to crimson colour (like the Rata) with the yellow blossumed "Aurea" being the exception. The blossums appear in December and January leading to the tree being dubbed 'New Zealand's Christmas tree'.
They are a multi-trunked tree spreading as wide as 38 metres (124 feet). They are naturally a coastal tree and are renown for appearing to defy gravity in the way they cling to coastal cliffs. Although the trees are big, (the biggest at 20 metres/65 feet) they have very deep roots and on a cliff face, they dig their roots in a horizontal fashion deep into the cliff wall. When the trees are planted into the ground, they take on a more traditional shape with the trunks heading in a verticle direction.
The Pohutukawa has been introduced to other countries. A number of cities such as San Francisco have planted them as street trees. They also grow naturally in coastal areas in Sydney Australia as well as South Africa.
On the exact other side of the world in Spain is a Pohutukawa tree in the coastal city of La Corunna. The tree is even the city's floral emblem. Locals believe the tree to be about 400 to 500 years old which is certainly possible due to the maturity of the tree. However, the first European to discover New Zealand was the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman in 1642. This would make this Pohutukawa tree older than New Zealand's discovery meaning that the Spanish must have been the first Europeans to discover New Zealand. In support of this idea was a chance discovery around 1880 when a Spanish helmet was uncovered in Wellington harbour. But most think it is more likely that the Pohutukawa tree is younger and the Spanish helmet was brought to New Zealand by the British who claimed New Zealand as a British colony. If this is the case, it is still a mystery as to how the tree got there given that it is clearly the oldest Pohutukawa in Europe.