Home & Garden Columns

South Pacific Trees Extend Their Range to California

By Ron Sullivan, Special to the Planet
Tuesday July 04, 2006

We’re fortunate to have rather a large number of Hawaiians living in the Bay Area. I’ve visited the Islands only a couple of times, but I fall in love fast (if selectively) and it wasn’t just the climate, the heartstopping beauty of the place, or even the beautiful, increasingly elusive native flora and fauna that won my flinty, suspicious old heart. 

Aloha is for real, and I’ve been warmed by its glow there and, lucky me, here too.  

One Hawaiian of note, the organizer of a mainland hula halau, was caught on film marveling at seeing ohi’a trees on his street in San Francisco. ‘Ohi’a (Metrosideros polymorpha) is ubiquitous on the Islands, and its flower, known as ohi’a lehua, for the pair of lovers it unites—and if you pick the flower, it’ll rain because they weep at being separated again—is a nectar source for several of the native honeycreepers. 

These unique (and, no surprise, endangered or even extinct) birds are well worth seeing, even if you have to clamber over rough ground and thick brush for just a glimpse. I’ve bragged truthfully about the thrill of seeing an ‘apapane and, a year later, an ‘i’iwi feeding on ohi’a lehua, and the pleasure of just pronouncing that enhances the memory.  

But the fact is, what’s on the streets here is an ancestor species of the ‘ohi’a. It looks very similar, and ‘ohi’a is called polymorpha because it takes so many shapes anyway, so it’s easy to mistake them. 

Both have softly fuzzed gray-green leaves and flowers that are basically red (or occasionally yellow or orange) bristles of stamens, like a powderpuff or pincushion. Both exist here, if at all, as smallish trees, unless they’re in an arboretum or a sheltered garden. Both get bigger in their home ranges—and ‘ohi’a also gets shrubbier depending on where it’s growing.  

New Zealand Christmas tree (Metrosideros excelsa) is burdened with one of the more awkward common names I know. In New Zealand, they call it “pohutukawa,” which is long but at least only one word, and it makes more sense to me. One reference says it means “splashed by spray”—I’m taking their word for it because my Maori vocabulary is about nonexistent—and it’s typically a seaside tree there 

Picnickers sit in its shade, birds feed on its nectar, and sometimes oysters anchor themselves on its roots. 

There’s a story about its flowers, too, but less romantic, and its moral is “Finders keepers, losers weepers.” A canoe of founders sighted the pohutukawa-clad shoreline and the chief tossed his red feathers overboard, I guess thinking there were plenty to be had on shore. But what he found was red flowers that wilted when picked. Someone else had picked up his discarded feathers and wouldn’t give them back. 

Where it grows suggests a tough tree, tolerant of lots of salt in the air and around its roots, and indeed it is. It’s also tough enough to handle city life with aplomb. 

I’ve seen individuals out on the Berkeley marina, on Main Street in Half Moon Bay, and as grizzled old urban warriors on the nastiest parts of Sansome Street in San Francisco. (Nastiest for a street tree: windy, dirty, heavily trafficked, and tightly bound in concrete; I suppose it’s a respectable address for a business.)  

I’ve seen the Sansome Street trees doing something their Hawaiian cousins do, too. I looked up into one and saw a fibrous mass hanging from the trunk, like some odd broom. These were aerial roots.  

‘Ohi’a will throw bundles of these roots out into the air to capture supplemental moisture; I can see why pohutukawa would have that ability too, with dehydrating salt to contend with, and it’s certainly appropriate in foggy San Francisco, where I doubt these trees get any summer irrigation—and if they do get a drink, it’s bound to miss their feeder roots. Heaven knows what they’re finding under all that pavement: maybe groundwater, maybe leaky pipes.  

It’s an odd place to see a bit of the tropical shore, but then our median strips and curbsides host lots of New Zealand flax, another Kiwi expatriate. What with plants and all those new Hawaiian barbecue joints, we’re growing a bit of the South pPacific in North California, and hooray for that. 




Flowers and leaves of the New Zealand native Metrosideros excelsa look a lot like the tree’s Hawaiian cousin, ‘ohi’a. Photograph by Ron Sullivan