Crimson Tide

The pohutukawa's image problem

Labelled in San Francisco as a ‘curse’ where its ‘lazy’ roots have infiltrated sewer systems and buckled sidewalks, the pohutukawa, like many Kiwis on their O.E., can behave a little badly.

Planted there in the 1980s to brighten up the suburban streetscape, they were initially welcomed, especially when in full flower. But when the roots spread out they became a pest, destroying underground pipes and cracking the brittle concrete of San Francisco’s sidewalks.

The pohutukawa has made its presence felt on other continents too. South African authorities have classified it as an invasive weed in the Western Cape where it ‘competes with indigenous species’ and ‘threatens biodiversity.’ Although it’s not all bad news. The city of La Coruña in Spain have adopted the brightly flowered tree as their floral emblem.

Here, it is almost universally loved. A symbol of summer and family picnics at the beach, it is reverently referred to the ‘New Zealand Christmas tree.’ The crimson flowers, bearded branches and wily cliff hugging roots are unmistakable to most New Zealanders.

The teenage rite of passage in the small coastal town where I grew up was to climb out on a branch of a particular pohutukawa that clung to the side of a sandy cliff. Once out there, the idea was to spend as long as necessary to summon the courage you needed and then leap off into the water. Even at high tide, the sea was only a few metres deep and a crucial part of the feat was learning to bend your knees so that you absorbed the impact when your feet inevitably touched. Most only tried it once.

The pohutukawa has found it’s way into contemporary art too, and not just in knock-off screenprints from the local gift shop. A video artist from the USA, David Montgomery, has collected hundreds of specimens of pohutukawa flowers, buds and leaves from those same trees that are annoying the neighbours in San Francisco. He spent months scanning the specimens before editing the images into animated videos.

The result is a Len Lye-like morphing and growing, shrinking and vibrating. They are eerie and surreal, like a conspiracy theorist’s alien-abduction video. The dislocated parts of the pohutukawa are more or less recognisable, but in their strange jittery movement they are also something else, something we, at least in New Zealand, wouldn’t normally admit to - a bit scary and invasive. Maybe even alien.

Pohutukawa from David C. Montgomery on Vimeo.