pōhutukawa in bloom on pukeahu

Pōhutukawa in bloom on Pukeahu, with the carillon tower in the background.

Credit: Photograph by Andy Palmer, Manatū Taonga

If you take a walk around Pukeahu you’ll notice the many pōhutukawa trees growing on the hill. These trees, which erupt with beautiful red flowers in summer, were planted here with a purpose.

An iconic tree

The pōhutukawa tree is a New Zealand icon.

For Māori is it has deep spiritual meaning, connecting the beginning and ending of human life. In Māori mythology, the crimson flowers represent the blood of the warrior Tāwhaki, who fell to earth while attempting to find heaven to seek help in avenging the death of his father.

Some Pākehā have also adopted the Māori tradition of planting a pōhutukawa as a living memorial to the dead.

Tree-planting at Pukeahu

When the National War Memorial Carillon was dedicated in 1932, Pukeahu was a barren hill.

In 1935 a scheme to beautify the city was launched by the Wellington Horticultural Society and the Wellington Beautifying Society. At a function on 7 August 1935 Governor-General Lord Galway and his wife, Lady Galway, planted two pōhutukawa trees the base of the carillon.

A further 16 pōhutukawa trees were planted at the carillon in 1936 to commemorate 16 men of the HMS Philomel, New Zealand’s first warship, who died during the First World War.

In 1938, through a government employment scheme, more trees were planted on the eastern bank of the hill, near the recently opened Dominion Museum and National Art Gallery. At least 500 pōhutukawa were planted on 19 May 1938, with the Wellington Beautifying Society supplying all the trees as part of 1,000 trees and shrubs donated to Wellington City Council.

During their occupation of the Dominion Museum building during the Second World War, the Royal New Zealand Air Force installed underground air raid shelters, which seriously affected the grounds and trees.

On Arbor Day 1945, after the war in Europe ended, a great many pōhutukawa were planted all over Wellington, including on Pukeahu. A 1970s redevelopment of the gardens at the National War Memorial also included further planting of pōhutukawa.

By the 1980s the Dominion Museum and National Art Gallery had outgrown the building. When they moved to a new building on the waterfront, becoming the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, a pōhutukawa tree went it, recognising the importance of the trees on Pukeahu.

pōhutukawa in bloom during national war memorial ceremony

Pōhutukawa in bloom during 28th (Māori) Battalion farewell ceremony at the National War Memorial on 1 December 2012.

Credit: Photograph by Andy Palmer, Manatū Taonga

Remembering Pacific Island warriors

During the Second World War volunteers from the Pacific Islands fought for New Zealand, including a few who served in the 28th (Māori) Battalion. Around the same time, a prominent descendant of Wellington’s Te Ātiawa iwi (tribe) married a Rarotongan ariki (chief), forming a strong connection with the Pacific Islands.

Pacific Island people celebrate their warriors with red flowers; and so,in recognition of the Pacific Island soldiers who died in the war, Te Ātiawa iwi planted pōhutukawa all over the city of Wellington, in particular at the National War Memorial, so that the trees would bloom red flowers to welcome the warriors home.

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Updated on 19th October 2017