Tree of the Week – Part 5: The Monkey Puzzle

Group of Monkey Puzzle trees in the wild

Monkey Puzzle – Araucaria araucana

The previous Trees of the Week have featured broadleaf trees – it’s time for an evergreen and the Monkey Puzzle is a brilliant example.

With its unique needle/leaf shape and unusual silhouette, the Monkey Puzzle is one of the easiest evergreen trees to identify. Once seen never forgotten, it’s a really popular tree with young children (probably because of its child-friendly common name as well as its ‘drawn by a child’ shape).

This is a tree which has been around for millenia – it’s assumed that those tough prickly scales (which occur on the young trunk as well as the stems) afforded it protection from vegetarian dinosaurs! A truly ancient tree which looked so different to anything Victorian gardeners had seen, that it became ‘the’ tree to plant in your estate/parkland/front garden!

It should be remembered that this is not a tree suitable for a small front garden. In its natural environment of South American forests, a Monkey Puzzle can reach over 30m easily and there are records of giants of over 50m!

If you can get close enough to a low branch or young tree, take a look at the growing tip. It shows the spiral nature of growth that can be seen in some succulents, or the seeds of a sunflower. Botanists have researched this shape and it involves the Golden Angle and the Fibonacci series of numbers – we’ll leave it there I think?!

Growing tip of a Monkey Puzzle branch

Tree of the Week Facts, figures and legends!

  • The common name comes from the confusion amongst Victorian tree lovers who couldn’t understand how a monkey would be able to climb it! Clearly they didn’t realise that there weren’t any monkeys in Chile, where the tree was first discovered!
  • Plant hunter Archibald Menzies stole Monkey puzzle seeds from a banquet being held by the Viceroy of Chile. They were served roasted as a form of pudding!
  • The Latin terms ‘Araucaria’ and ‘araucana’ both refer to Chilean terms for the region the trees are found in and the name of a local tribe.
  • The bark is so heat resistant that islands of trees can be created when lava from erupting volcanoes surrounds them but doesn’t kill them.
  • Because the timber is knot-free, Monkey Puzzle trees have been felled and logged for all sorts of uses. Unfortunately, this has lead (amongst other pressures) to the trees now being listed as ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List.

Personal favourites/recommendations/wish list trees:

  • To see a large group of mature Monkey Puzzles is a rare treat in this country, but believe it or not, there is an avenue of them at Bicton College, Budleigh Salterton in Devon!
  • As with a lot of the non-native trees, the Wishlist trees are those determined giants still growing in isolated forests in their homeland. So a trip to South America would be the way to truly appreciate these beauties.

You can find out loads more about Monkey Puzzle trees on websites such as:

The Monkey Puzzle Map

Kew Gardens

Come back next week for Tree of the Week – Part 6