Garden Notes

Monkey Puzzle Tree

2005 August 6
by mike

The monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) is native to the foothills of the Andes mountains in Chile and Argentina. This living fossil is considered to be the nearest relative to the trees of the Carboniferous period (300 million years ago). The tree definitely has a prehistoric look, with its heavy coating of overlapped, spiny leaves.

Those very sharp leaves are what give the monkey puzzle tree its name. Observing the tree’s spiny armor, a 19th-century Englishman purportedly commented that climbing the tree would be quite a puzzle for a monkey. (Never mind that there are no monkeys in the monkey puzzle tree’s indigenous region.)

The monkey puzzle tree was brought to England in the late 18th century by Archibald Menzies. While visiting Chile, Menzies was served some of the tree’s edible seeds. Having never seen them before, he pocketed some of them, several of which sprouted on his voyage back to Europe. This unusual tree quickly found its way into the rare-plant gardens of Europe and later North America. Araucaria araucana is a relatively common sight as an ornamental tree in Pacific Northwest.

The monkey puzzle tree is dioecious, meaning that there are both male and female specimens of the tree, both of which are needed for the production of viable seeds. The female tree produces large, round cones while the male produces cucumber shaped, dangling cones. Without a pollenating male, the seeds of the female Araucaria araucana are mostly or completely hollow.

Unfortunately, the monkey puzzle tree may be headed for extinction, according to the Global Trees Campaign. During 2001-2002, thousands of hectares of Araucaria araucanaforests in Chile were destroyed by fire. The tree is listed in Appendix I of CITES, meaning that international trade of the tree is forbidden.

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