The Monkey Puzzle Tree: An Unusual and Endangered Plant
An Unusual Tree
The monkey puzzle tree is an unusual, attractive, and very interesting plant. Its ancestors coexisted with the dinosaurs and formed large forests. The modern tree has strange leaves, a distinctive trunk, and branches that emerge from the trunk in whorls. The female trees produce large and tasty seeds which are very popular in some parts of the world. As it matures, the tree loses its lower branches and becomes a tall and very imposing plant.
The monkey puzzle tree, or Araucaria araucana, is an evergreen conifer that is native to Chile and Argentina. It's the national tree of Chile. The tree's common name comes from the idea that a monkey would be unable to climb it. It's also known as the Chilean pine or the Chile pine, although it's not a member of the pine family. The tree grows slowly and lives for hundreds of years. It has been introduced to many places around the world, where it grows as an ornamental plant.
Monkey puzzle trees and pine trees belong to the plant order known as the Pinales. The monkey puzzle tree belongs to the family Araucariaceae within this order while pine trees belong to the family Pinaceae.
Trunk and Leaves
Monkey puzzle trees are fascinating plants that some people consider to be weird or even bizarre. Mature trees may reach 150 feet in height—or even higher according to some sources—and have a trunk diameter of up to 7 feet. Another startling fact is that the trees are thought to live for as long as a thousand years.
The first thing that strikes an observer of a young tree is probably its upright form and its symmetrical shape. If the observer moves closer, they will see the tree's strange leaves and trunk.
The leaves of the monkey puzzle tree are thick and stiff and have a pointed tip. The leaves overlap each other and completely cover the branches. They are sometimes said to look "reptilian" because they remind people of a reptile's scales. The trunk is grey in color and has circular ridges.
As the tree matures, the ridges on the bottom of the trunk start to look like folds. The base of the trunk may eventually resemble an elephant's foot. The lower branches of the tree fall off, leaving a crown of branches at the tip and a tall trunk underneath. The crown is often umbrella shaped. The overall effect is impressive because of the great height of the tree.
The leaves of a monkey puzzle tree are interesting to examine and photograph but can be painful to touch.
Cones and Seeds
Monkey puzzle trees are either male or female. The cones are borne on the upper branches. The male cones are also known as pollen cones and the female ones are known as seed cones. Pollination (transfer of pollen from the male cones to the female ones) is by wind. The cones take eighteen months or longer to mature.
The cylindrical male cones are 3 to 5 inches long when fully mature while the more spherical female cones reach 6 to 12 inches. The latter may weigh several pounds. There are reports of some cones weighing as much as ten pounds. It's not a good idea to stand under a monkey puzzle tree when it's dropping its cones!
The seeds of the monkey puzzle tree are large, edible and—according to people who have eaten them—delicious. They are about the size of an almond and form a staple food in parts of South America. They also have a spiritual significance for indigenous people. The seeds are eaten raw or are boiled or roasted. They are also milled into a flour that is used to make bread and fermented to make a beverage.
Like the leaves, the spiky cones are interesting to observe but can be painful to handle.
Introduction of the Tree to Britain
Archibald Menzies was a British Navy surgeon and a plant collector. He's credited with the British discovery of the monkey puzzle tree while on a voyage with Captain George Vancouver in H.M.S. Discovery.
In 1795, Archibald Menzies and other officers from the Discovery attended a meal hosted by the Governor of Chile. They were served a dessert of seeds from the monkey puzzle tree. Menzies saved some of the seeds and germinated them on board the ship. When he returned to Britain he had five young monkey puzzle trees with him. They were planted in the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew.
The monkey puzzle trees seen in most parks and gardens today are juveniles. People might think that they need to take a trip to South America to see the mature trees. There is at least one place in Britain where older trees can be viewed, however—on the grounds of Bicton Agricultural College in Devon.
The Monkey Puzzle Avenue at Bicton Agricultural College
Why Are Monkey Puzzle Trees Endangered?
The IUCN, or International Union for Conservation of Nature, has classified the wild monkey puzzle tree population as endangered. This is worrying information. It would be very sad to lose this unique tree from the Earth.
The number of monkey puzzle trees has been reduced due to deforestation caused by logging and burning. These activities are used to clear trees from land so that it can be used to grow crops or to provide a grazing area for animals. Monkey puzzle trees are actually quite resistant to fires caused by natural causes but are less able to protect themselves from fires deliberately set by people. The tree is also harvested for its fine-grained wood. It's illegal to cut down a wild monkey puzzle tree in its native habitat, but unfortunately this law is often disobeyed.
The population of monkey puzzle trees is becoming fragmented as trees are destroyed. Since the trees grow so slowly and don't reproduce for many years after seed germination, they can't recover from population stresses very well. They are protected in some parts of their range, but they need more help.
According to the IUCN, the monkey puzzle tree is not only endangered but also has a decreasing population.
Growing the Trees From Seeds and Seedlings
Outside of their native habitat, monkey puzzle trees grow well in Britain and in the Pacific Northwest region of North America (Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia). They also grow in Northern California and in some other parts of North America.
The tree does best in a mild climate that receives a good supply of rain. It likes full sunlight. It grows in a wide variety of soils as long as they are well drained. The tree will tolerate salt spray from the ocean. However, it doesn't do well in a hot, dry climate or in polluted areas. It's classified as hardy to USDA Zone 7.
Seeds or seedlings of a monkey puzzle tree produces a lovely ornamental plant. The tree is sometimes grown in a container as a house plant. Patience is needed if the grower wants to obtain seeds from the tree, however, and there is no guarantee of success.
Monkey puzzle trees grow very slowly. The seeds generally germinate in one to two months. It may take as long as thirty to forty years before new seeds are produced, and even then this will only happen if a tree is a female and if there is a male tree in the area. The gender of a tree can be determined only when cones are produced.
A tree should be planted while a person is relatively young if they hope to harvest seeds during their lifetime. If it's too late for this, the future ability of the tree to bear seeds (if it's a female) would have to be a gift to descendants or to people who buy the property containing the tree.
Repotting Monkey Puzzle Tree Seedlings
Monkey Puzzle Tree Trivia: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
A monkey puzzle tree played a significant role in in the 1947 movie "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir", which starred Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison. In the movie, Mrs. Muir purchases Gull Cottage. The cottage is haunted by Captain Gregg, the previous owner of the home. A friendship develops between Mrs. Muir and the Captain, although the pair both have strong personalities and frequently argue with each other.
Mrs. Muir orders the beautiful monkey puzzle tree in the garden to be cut down because its branches broke one of the cottage's windows during a windstorm. The destruction of the monkey puzzle tree that he planted both angers and hurts the Captain. The incident also appears in one episode of the "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" TV show, which was aired in 1968. The movie has a happy ending, however. When Mrs. Muir dies of old age, the Captain comes to greet her. The pair leave Gull Cottage, united in spirit form.
Monkey puzzle trees do have a way of making themselves noticed, whether in movies or in real life. They are distinctive trees that grow very well in my area. I enjoy observing them and find them very appealing plants.
© 2014 Linda Crampton