Riddle of how the monkey puzzle tree came to be a UK favourite

Monkey puzzle trees in Huerquehue National Park, Chile

Some time in the late 1840s or early 1850s Sir William Molesworth purchased – for a princely 20 guineas – a specimen of the then uncommon Araucaria araucana to plant in his garden at Pencarrow House near Bodmin, Cornwall. As he showed off his unusual prize to a group of dinner party guests, one of them – the noted barrister and Benthamist Charles Austin – remarked that the hard, very prickly leaves and their unusual overlapping arrangement on the branches “would be a puzzle for a monkey”.

Until then the Araucaria had gone about its business with no common name other than the rather bland (and botanically incorrect) Chilean Pine. Despite the singular absence of any monkeys for the tree to puzzle in its Chilean homeland, it was not long before “monkey puzzler” and then “monkey puzzle” entered the vernacular and stuck. The reference to primates in the common name is not confined to the UK either; in France it goes by the more mournful désespoir des singes.

By the time of Austin’s witty observation, monkey puzzle trees had been in cultivation in a few places in the UK for 50 years but were uncommon. A native of Chile and Argentina, it grows in mixed deciduous and evergreen forests, or in single species stands, between 600m and 1,800m above sea level. Juvenile trees have branches that are furnished down to the ground, but as the tree ages the lower branches begin to shed, resulting in a distinctive “chimney sweep’s brush” appearance with the foliage clustered at the top of the straight stem. Seed production does not take place until the tree is 30 to 40 years old (the maximum lifespan is about 150 years) with one male Araucaria required for every five or six females to ensure pollination.

Engraving of the Araucania tribe, circa 1832

The first European to describe it was the Spanish explorer Don Francisco Dendariarena in the 1600s, but it was not until 1795 that plants were brought back to Europe by Archibald Menzies. Menzies was the naval surgeon aboard Captain Cook’s old ship Discovery, then under the command of Captain George Vancouver and on a four-year circumnavigation of the globe. Araucaria seed is edible, and has long been a staple of Chile’s indigenous Mapuche people – the specific epithet is a derivative of Araucanía, the Conquistador name for the Mapuche.

Portrait of Sir Joseph Banks

At a dinner held by the Governor of Chile, the resourceful Menzies was served the seed for dessert and rather than eating it squirrelled a handful into his pocket. Back aboard the Discovery he sowed the seed into frames and managed to raise five seedlings, three of which were given to Sir Joseph Banks at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, from which one plant survived and thrived for almost 100 years.

It was another great plant hunter who was responsible for the commercial introduction of Araucaria araucana and its subsequent ubiquity in Victorian and Edwardian gardens. Cornishman William Lobb worked for Veitch nurseries, one of the great powerhouses of Victorian horticulture and a business responsible for the introduction to Europe of hundreds of popular garden plants. Lobb was one of their star collectors, introducing the seed of such notable plants as the Wellingtonia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), Crinodendron hookerianum, Berberis darwinii and Nothofagus antarctica. In 1842 he travelled to Chile with the instruction from James Veitch to collect the seed of the Araucaria, Veitch having seen and admired the specimen at Kew. Lobb journeyed overland from Argentina, a trek through frozen countryside so gruelling he frequently fell ill with fever.

He finally reached the Araucaria forests at 1650 metres above sea level, just below the snow line, where he collected more than 3,000 seeds by shooting the cones down from the trees with a shotgun. The Pencarrow tree would almost certainly have been from the first batch of seed brought back to the UK by Lobb. And as Lobb’s father, John, was the estate carpenter at Pencarrow, it is not too great a stretch to imagine that Sir William Molesworth was made aware of the existence of the monkey puzzle by Lobb junior himself.

Araucaria araucana, or monkey puzzle, in an 1897 illustration

Araucaria araucana thrive in the cool, moist conditions of the southern Andes, where the soil is enriched with volcanic ash and the air is free from pollution. It is something of a miracle then that they managed to do so well in the smoggy gardens of late Victorian and Edwardian London. One of the peculiarities of the monkey puzzle is how frequently, for what is after all a large forest tree with an ultimate size of up to 50 metres, it can be found in tiny front gardens. Either this is an example of a mass act of arboricultural insanity or, perhaps more likely, due to its popularity as a “spot plant” or focal point in formal bedding schemes where its form and curious, shiny foliage would have been much admired. Fast forward to today and the bedding has long gone, the once diminutive spot plant grown into a fully fledged tree, crowding out other plants as it would in the wild, reaching up beyond the roof line of the house and blocking the light within.

A selection of monkey puzzle seeds

In the two centuries since Menzies pocketed his dinner dessert the monkey puzzle has been under pressure throughout its home range. Deforestation started not long after Don Francisco Dendariarena’s discovery and accelerated through the 1800s and 1900s as Chile industrialised, with Araucaria timber in demand for pit props, paper pulp manufacturing and railway sleepers. Its dead-straight trunk also meant it was particularly suited for use as ships’ masts. Although protected by law since 1971 the scale of the felling and milling operations mean the number of trees remaining is a fraction of what it once was, resulting in the tree being classed as vulnerable and listed under CITES, the international treaty for endangered species, to prevent further trade in timber. National Monument status was awarded by the Chilean government in 1990, making it illegal to fell a tree. And the toasted nuts are still eaten by those Mapuche communities who live close to viable trees.

Matthew Wilson is managing director of Clifton Nurseries in London

The iCONic Project: Scottish effort to conserve Chilean species

Monkey puzzle at Pencarrow

While the threat to the monkey puzzle has been reduced through legislation, the threat to conifer species worldwide is increasing. According to the newly updated Red List of endangered species compiled by International Union for Conservation of Nature, a third of the world’s 600-odd conifer species is under threat. This is mainly through logging and disease and, in Chile, the flooding of Andean valleys for hydroelectric power.

The iCONic project was launched in 2008 with the aim of protecting these species for ex-situ conservation. Seed is collected in situ and then brought back to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, where seedlings are grown on until large enough to plant out. This takes place in selected sites in Perthshire, Scotland, a region where conifers thrive and the conditions are similar to parts of the southern Andes.

A total of 20 flagship species have been identified, including the Chilean plum yew, Prumnopitys andina, a podocarp that is rare in the wild and rarer still in cultivation in part because, as iCONic project officer Tom Christian puts it, “it’s a bugger to grow”. There are thriving communities of Prumnopitys andina in Chile’s San Fabian de Alico valley, which is due to be flooded in two years' time, destroying the area’s indigenous plant species and virgin forest. The valley’s Prumnopitys andina are genetically distinct, making it a refuge for this internationally threatened species.

The hope of the iCONic is that should Chilean energy policy change in the future and the opportunity arise for the San Fabian de Alico and other valleys to be returned to their former state, the Perthshire populations will provide a significant part of the material needed for restoration ecology to take place.

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