Thursday, January 20, 2011

New Zealand Christmas Tree at UCSD

Did you know we have a tree on campus that is famous for living to be 1000 years old? This tree is also an important holiday icon in New Zealand, much like mistletoe is in America.The New Zealand Christmas tree, also known as the mainland pohutukawa (pronounced like Po-Who-Too-COW-A) and Metrosideros excels, can be seen in the Chancellor’s Building’s courtyard. Upon first glance you will notice the bundles of ‘branches’ dangling down, completely perpendicular to the soil. These are called aerial or adventitious roots – yes roots! In its native habitat, the rocky northern coast of New Zealand, the New Zealand Christmas tree can thrive in barren, rocky coastal cliff-like environments where soil moisture can be rare.

Remember the trees are windblown on cliffs and coasts. This sucks moisture out much faster than a calm environment; moisture loss increases with wind speed. Take a look at the leaves. Notice how the tops of the matured leaves are dark and slick, which prevents moisture loss. The bottoms are light and fuzzy, also known as pupscent. This texture is produced by microscopic hairs that the tree has adapted as another way to keep moisture in. Even a minor slowing of wind velocity can have a significant effect on reducing moisture loss.

Now it is time for a brief lesson on New Zealand. The name New Zealand Christmas tree came to be not because New Zealanders (also known as 'kiwis') bring them into their homes and decorate them with ornaments for your cat to knock down, but because of its flowers. Christmas in New Zealand is widely celebrated outside because December is a summer month south of the equator. This tree provides gorgeous decorations of red blossoms that bloom profusely before Christmas and into January. The flowers color shorelines and hillsides; they are brought inside homes as ­­­­ornamentation and are commonly printed on holiday banners and cards, making these flowers an important part of New Zealand Holiday tradition.
Photo taken from
This tree and its flowers have held a prominent role in Maori (the native people of New Zealand) culture. According to legend, Tawhaki, a young Maori warrior, attempted to climb to heaven to find his father. Unsuccessful, Tawhaki fell to earth. The red flowers are said to represent his blood. Furthermore, The New Zealand Christmas trees’ branches are believed to be the leaping place for departed souls entering the underworld.

The New Zealand Christmas tree is more than just visually pleasing. Maori and possibly early settlers used the leaves and bark of the New Zealand Christmas Tree for a variety of medicinal purposes. Its flowers and roots contain several antioxidants including anthocyanins - which are usually found in red colored fruits like blueberries - flavonoids, and chalcones. These have been studied and have shown positive results in diverse health effects, from anti-inflammatory properties to inhibition of tumors.

Now you know that this tree not only provides shade for Chancellor Fox's visitors, it is very important to Maori and New Zealanders, and is helping in cancer research (along with many other plants - but that is a different topic!).

By the way, if you thought a tree live 1000 years is a long time, you'll be surprised to know that the oldest living tree in the world has a root system dating back 9,950 years! Read the article here:

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