The Monkey Puzzle Tree
200 million years ago an extinction event marked the end of the Triassic period, possibly caused by volcanic activity, when many species of marine, animal and plant life became extinct.
This marked the start of the Jurassic period when dinosaurs, having survived from the Triassic period became the dominant land animals and remained so for the next 80 million years throughout the Cretaceous period. The family of trees Araucariaceae, was one of the dominant species of plant life throughout these periods and throughout the world, providing food for these enormous animals who consumed massive amounts of foliage each day.
It’s likely that the threat of being munched is how one species, araucaria aracana, the monkey puzzle, survived and evolved into the tree we now know. Very tall with long bare trunks, even one of the tallest dinosaurs, Brachiosaurus at 50 feet high, couldn’t reach the top branches and as the small, young tree was still growing, they might have found the sharp leathery leaves rather unpalatable anyway.
However, eventually, the earth’s tectonic plates shifted the land masses, produced mountains and moved the ocean floor. These changes and other climatic events all lent a hand in forming the earth as we know it today and left many species including the dinosaurs extinct.
Most of the Araucariaceae family were also wiped out but the tree we are interested in survived, albeit only in the southern hemisphere and specifically in the Andes mountains of Chile and to a lesser extent over the border into Argentina.
The monkey puzzle is now grown extensively throughout the world.
Throughout the 18th century there were many European expeditions with various objectives, geographical surveys, science, commerce etc. Therefore scientists and especially botanists would travel on some expeditions learning about nature and collecting specimens from these often exotic and distant countries.
Model of HMS Discovery (1789) at the Vancouver Maritime Museum.
In 1790, on board HMS Discovery, a Scottish surgeon and botanist, Archibald Menzies, was appointed as naturalist on a round the world voyage with the objective of bringing home plants and seeds for Kew Gardens. While visiting Chile he managed to acquire what we now know as monkey puzzle seeds. There is a romantic story of the seeds, which formed part of the Chilean diet, being served cooked at a formal dinner in Santiago and how Menzies slipped a few in his pocket which he later germinated on the voyage back to England in 1795. There are too many flaws in this story for it to be true, not least that cooked seeds would not germinate
There is also another more pausible story. Archibald Menzies brought back a male cone which is now in the Natural History Museum, London and it is probable that he obtained a female cone at the same time. Female cones however are simply made up of a couple of hundred individual seeds and when ripe, the cone disintegrates freeing all the constituent parts. Which means he would have had a ready supply of seeds to propagate on the return journey on board ship but no cone.
Records from the voyage no doubt detailing the events of how he came by them unfortunately went missing so unless lost documents are found in the future, we will probably never know exactly how he got them.
Whatever happened, monkey puzzle tree seedlings were brought back and 3 or 4 planted at Kew gardens. It seems a couple died soon after planting and the rest were cosseted under glass before it was known how hardy they were. These were then the only examples growing in the U.K.
By this time, the beginning of the 1800’s, interest was growing in these rare and unusual trees and more seeds and seedlings arrived from Chile. In 1824 another Scottish botanist, James Macrae, was sent by the Royal Horticultural Society on board the H.M.S. Blonde to gather botanical information and collect plants. He returned from South America with a larger quantity of monkey puzzle specimens which were distributed without charge to various gardens and estates.
On the return journey, H.M.S. Blonde encountered the wreck of the Frances Mary and the crew managed to rescue the remaining 6 people alive.
During the Victorian era the tree became a status symbol for the landed gentry and there was nothing more spectacular than an avenue of monkey puzzle trees leading up to your stately home.
Survivors from the circa 1840s planted avenue that lines the main drive to Pencarrow, Cornwall.
image by David Gedye
The oft-repeated story of how the tree received its name is worth repeating here.
In 1834 at Pencarrow House in Cornwall a tree planting ceremony took place for their first Araucaria araucana. There was a large and distinguished party and one of the guests, Charles Austin remarked of this unusual tree “It would be a puzzler for a monkey”. The name became popular and evolved into monkey puzzle tree. Eventually an avenue of trees was planted at Pencarrow and in 2017 there were still over 60 trees growing on various parts of the estate.
This tree has remained popular ever since as an unusual and decorative tree growing throughout the British Isles and the rest of the world.