Monkey Puzzle – Araucaria araucana (Monkey Tail Tree, Chilean Pine)

Trees & Shrubs – Monkey Puzzle – Araucaria araucana (commonly called the Monkey Puzzle Tree, Monkey Tail Tree, Chilean Pine, Chili Pine or Pehuén) is an evergreen tree growing to 1-1.5 m (3-5 ft) in diameter and 30-40 m (100-130 ft) in height. It’s native to central and southern Chile and western Argentina. Araucaria araucana is the hardiest species in the conifer genus Araucaria. Because of the longevity of this species, it is described as a living fossil. It is also the national tree of Chile. Its conservation status was changed to Endangered by the IUCN in 2013 due to the dwindling population.

The origin of the popular English language name ‘monkey puzzle’ derives from its early cultivation in Britain in about 1850, when the species was still very rare in gardens and not widely known. Sir William Molesworth, the proud owner of a young specimen at Pencarrow garden near Bodmin in Cornwall was showing it to a group of friends, one of them – the noted barrister and Benthamist Charles Austin remarked, “It would puzzle a monkey to climb that”. As the species had no existing popular name, first ‘monkey puzzler’, then ‘monkey puzzle’ stuck. (Wikipedia)

Monkey-Puzzle-Araucaria-araucana-Monkey-Tail-Tree-Chilean-Pine-detail Monkey Puzzle - Araucaria araucana (Monkey Tail Tree, Chilean Pine)
Monkey Puzzle – Araucaria araucana The female (seed) cones, which mature in autumn about 18 months after pollination, are globose, large, 12–20 cm (4.7–7.9 in) in diameter, and hold about 200 edible seeds (A).

The Chili Pine (Araucaria imbricata). Edward Step (now re-classified)

The Chili Pine, or “Monkey Puzzle,” is a familiar sight on suburban lawns, where, however, it seldom attains a large size or long retains health. The lower branches drop off, and the upper ones become brown, as though scorched. But away from the smoke-laden atmosphere and uncongenial soils, some handsome and massive Araucarias may be seen rising from fair lawns, with dense branches curving at their tips, and regularly disposed in whorls from the dome-like head of the tree to the grass at its base. Such was the magnificent specimen at Dropmore that died in 1902, such is the fine tree at Woodstock, Co. Kilkenny, which now presumably takes the position of eminence in these islands hitherto held by the Dropmore example.

The Chili Pine is a native of Southern Chili, where it was discovered by a Spaniard, Don F. Dendariarena, in 1780, as he was prospecting for timber. About the same time two other Spaniards, Drs. Ruiz and Pavon, were botanizing in Chili, and came across the Araucaria, of which they sent herbarium specimens to Europe. But in spite of this three-fold opportunity for Spain, the actual introduction of the Araucaria to Europe must be credited to Britain. Archibald Menzies, who accompanied Captain Vancouver as botanist on his celebrated voyage, came across the tree in Chili, and brought home both seeds and young plants. One of these became a fine tree at Kew, where it was for many years the object of admiration and interest, but it perished in 1892.

Monkey-Puzzle-Araucaria-araucana-Monkey-Tail-Tree-Chilean-Pine Monkey Puzzle - Araucaria araucana (Monkey Tail Tree, Chilean Pine)
Monkey Puzzle – Araucaria araucana Monkey Tail Tree, Chilean Pine

The Araucaria forms extensive pure forests in the province of Arauco, from which it gets its name, and to whose inhabitants the seeds are a most important item of their food-supply. Not only do the trees in these forests lose their lower branches, but even those growing in the open plains of their native country have similarly bare trunks for nearly half their height. It is therefore a satisfaction to know that the finest specimens grown in this country have really surpassed those grown in their natural home. The height reached by old trees is from eighty to a hundred feet, with a trunk-girth of from sixteen to twenty-three feet. The tapering of this trunk is very slight, and a few of the stiff, spine-tipped leaves, with which its younger extremity is densely clothed, still remain attached in a dried-up condition far down the column. These leaves will have been observed to entirely cover the branches, not being restricted, as in most trees, to the newly formed branchlets and twigs. They are very hard, and endure for about fifteen years; are about an inch and a quarter long, and overlap, though their sharp-pointed ends turn away from the branch.

DSC_0008-300x169 Monkey Puzzle - Araucaria araucana (Monkey Tail Tree, Chilean Pine)
Monkey Puzzle – Araucaria araucana (Monkey Tail Tree, Chilean Pine)

The cylindrical male flowers are four or five inches long, borne singly or in small clusters. It was formerly supposed that the sexes were on separate trees, but though many individuals only produce flowers of one kind, this is by no means the general rule. The female flowers are about four inches long, almost round in shape, but broader at the base than above. They are covered with long, narrow, overlapping scales, beneath which are found the seeds when the flower has developed into the brown cone, which is six inches in diameter. The scales are then easily detached; in fact, when the seeds are ripe, the cone falls to pieces. The seed is about an inch and a half long, enclosed in a hard, thin shell.

The Chili Pine does not succeed in this country unless it is given pure air, sunshine, abundant moisture, and an open subsoil to carry it off. Yet it will grow to a very handsome tree if these conditions are observed. Very fine effects have been obtained in some places by planting an Araucaria grove. Such an avenue is in fine condition at Woodstock, Co. Kilkenny (running parallel with an avenue of Abies nobilis), every tree with its branches intact from turf to summit, and bearing fertile cones. There is a similar, but less perfectly preserved, Araucaria grove at Bicton in Devonshire.

(Step was writing over a century ago, classification has also changed.) Wayside and Woodland Trees A POCKET GUIDE TO THE BRITISH SYLVA BY EDWARD STEP, F.L.S.)

The avenue of Monkey Puzzle at Bicton in Devon is now a fine example of the trees, with an almost unique collection including possibly the tallest and oldest in Britain.