On each side of the lookout you will see a northern rātā tree. This is one of the southernmost places in Tasman Bay for this species. In the northern part of the park it is common and grows into large trees. These trees start life as an epiphyte, but send roots down to the ground. These then form side roots that embrace the host tree. After many years (hundreds) the embracing roots grow together and ‘strangle’ the host tree (usually a rimu or a pukatea). The merged roots form a trunk and the host trunk gradually rots away leaving a hollow. This peculiar history means that the light-loving rātā can establish in already dense forest. However the trees at Pitt Head have established directly on the open coastal rock.
Rātā are special because every few years they flower spectacularly, covering the canopy briefly in red and providing huge supplies of nectar to the tūī and bellbird. Possums eat rātā leaves and kill trees and Project Janszoon is planting new rātā wherever there is suitable habitat.
There are three tree rātā in New Zealand: one restricted to the far north, one (southern rātā) found throughout South Island, including high elevations in the park, and this one found through the North Island and into the northern part of South Island. They belong to the genus Metrosideros meaning ‘iron-hearted’ because the wood is exceptionally heavy and hard.
A related species is pōhutukawa, famous along the rocky coast of Northland, and also spectacular for Christmas blossom—it is New Zealand’s Christmas tree. Metrosideros is found on islands throughout the Pacific all the way to Hawaii, but it is in New Zealand that the largest and most brilliant displays occur.