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A Very Aotearoa Christmas
ZEALANDIA Ecosanctuary

A Very Aotearoa Christmas

Pōhutukawa vs Rātā

While the other side of the world hunkers down for winter, and carols about snowmen and freezing temperatures ring out in shops, having Christmas in summertime can feel a bit out of place. But there are many things that make Aotearoa feel festive!  

Take our New Zealand Christmas tree for example. The classic red flower of the pōhutukawa is scattered across Christmas cards and footpaths throughout December. But did you know there are other types of myrtles in Wellington too? 

The myrtle family (Myrtaceae) has over 3,000 different members but in New Zealand, pōhutukawa and rātā are some of the easiest to recognise from their iconic, festive red flowers.  

While these flowers can cause confusion over which tree is which, checking out the leaves will give you an answer. Pōhutukawa leaves tend to be larger and are a darker green colour. The rātā leaf is also glossy on both sides, while pōhutukawa have very fine, white hairs on the underside. Pōhutukawa is also not native to the Wellington region, so while it grows here now, it originally was found north of New Plymouth, and up towards Gisborne.  

Northern rātā on the other hand is native to Wellington and very important in our ecosystem. This tree provides plenty of kai/food for manu/birds spreading out from Zealandia, like kākā and tūī and also provides a tasty snack for lizard species as well. You can look out for these trees flowering across Wellington in late December to early January.  

Not only do we have a NZ Christmas tree, but we also have our own native mistletoe species too!  


Native Mistletoe

At Zealandia, we translocated pirita/green mistletoe into the sanctuary in 2018 and the plants are now growing happily in the sanctuary. They have even flowered for the first time this year! We have recently done some work to ‘daylight’ the plants, which involved clearing some of the vegetation around them to give them access to more sunlight which will help them to grow even better.  

You can sneak a kiss under it on the Heritage Lawn, though it is hard to spot! Pirita is an epiphyte which means it grows in the tops of trees and hangs on to other species for a leg up to the sun. How they get up there in the first place though is a less than glamorous story. 



This mistletoe species has green flowers with bright orange berries which birds love. When birds like tauhou/waxeye eat and digest these berries, the seeds inside become sticky inside their stomachs. This means when the bird poops out the seeds, they can stick to any passing tree below and start their journey towards germination.  

So, we have a festive ngahere/forest but what about wildlife?  

While we do have toutouwai/North Island robins bouncing around the sanctuary spreading joy, there is another manu that truly embodies Christmas.  

Kākāriki (the name might give it away) is a beautiful bright green parakeet which has a splash of red across their face. They also have a cheerful, chattering call that almost sounds like Christmas bells while you are walking in the ngahere.  

The male kākāriki would also definitely pull his weight on Christmas day as they take charge of feeding the females while they are on the nest incubating their eggs. To do this he will do a cute, soft cooing call to bring her over and will then feed her before heading off again.  

While you are enjoying your Christmas holidays in Wellington keep an eye out (and ear out) for these manu, as they’ve been seen spreading across the city. To help keep them safe, please keep your dogs on a leash and your cats home as much as possible over the summer, as these birds tend to forage and spend a lot of time on the ground. One of our rangers even saw a fledgling have a wee nap on the ground once outside of the fence – cute but dangerous!  

Come along to Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne these summer holidays to get in the Christmas spirit and see all of our festive species within the sanctuary!  

Kākāriki Cover: Cam Hayes | Northern rata flowers:  Zealandia| Northern pōhutukawa: Stony Bay Image | Native Mistletoe: Zealandia |Kākāriki: Christopher Stephens

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