PLANT OF THE WEEK

Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department

 

MONKEY PUZZLE TREE

Monkey Puzzle Tree

A Monkey Puzzle Tree seedling growing in one of Union County College's greenhouses.

Common names

Monkey Puzzle Tree, Monkey Puzzle, Chilean Pine  

 

Scientific  name:      Araucaria araucana

 

Explanation of scientific name:

Both words of the scientific name are adapted from Arauco, a province of southern Chile.

Various authors have described the Monkey Puzzle Tree as bizarre, grotesque, weird, lizard-like, unique, statuesque, striking, and beautiful. Beauty truly does lie in the eye of the beholder. Most everyone, however, would agree that this coniferous (cone-bearing) tree is unusual.

Monkey Puzzle Trees have a pyramidal silhouette when young, with sweeping branches that arise in whorls from the trunk and arch upwards. With age the tree develops a more irregular shape with a flattened crown. The tree’s thick bark, protected terminal buds, and ability to resprout from older branches and the trunk make it superbly adapted to survive the natural fires in its native habitat. The dark green leaves are triangular, stiff, sharply pointed, and overlap each other. Each leaf can live for 10-15 years, and persist on the twigs and branches even after it dies and turns brown. The common name of Monkey Puzzle Tree is the result of a comment made by an Englishman in the early 1800’s, after he observed this well-armed tree. He said that it would be a puzzle for a monkey attempting to climb such a tree. Even though there are no monkeys in the native habitat of this species, that comment caught the public’s attention, and evolved into the tree’s best-known common name. 

Most Monkey Puzzle Trees are dioecious, meaning that there are male and female trees. Male trees bear 3 to 5 inch long erect cones. After releasing their pollen, they are shed. Female trees tend to be taller and have thicker trunks, and bear 6 to 12 inch long seed ladened cones that can weigh several pounds. The appearance of the spherical female cones reminds one of coconuts, and like coconut trees it would be unwise to stand under a female Monkey Puzzle Tree when she is shedding her cones.

Monkey Puzzle Trees can grow to astounding sizes and have amazingly long life spans. Heights of over 100 feet with trunks 4 feet in diameter are not unheard of, and the trees can probably live for one or two millennia. The largest individual known is over 150 feet tall with a 7-foot diameter trunk. The oldest specimen known has been alive for over 800 years.

Compared to its close coniferous relatives such as pines and spruces, the Monkey Puzzle Tree has a prehistoric look to it. One can readily imagine its presence amongst dinosaurs eons ago. Actually, that image would be accurate. Close relatives of this species were around hundreds of millions of years ago. Fossils of this very species date back 60 million years, and have been found in the Americas, Australia, and Europe. Many botanists consider the Monkey Puzzle Tree to be the most primitive conifer alive today.

While most conifer species live in the Northern Hemisphere, with poor representation south of the equator, the Monkey Puzzle Tree is different. It grows just about as far south as trees can grow on Earth, in southern Chile and Argentina, where it once made up vast forests on either side of the Andes Mountains. These once extensive forests are now only remnants of what they once were. The fine-grained wood of this species has long been prized, and used for construction, furniture, boats (especially masts), and paper pulp. Historically it has been the most important conifer tree for lumber in Chile. Overharvesting, in addition to wildfires and land clearing to graze animals, led the Chilean Ministry of Agriculture to declare the species a national monument in 1990, in an effort to protect it. It is illegal to cut wild specimens, but the trees are poached and those on private lands have minimal protection. Public and private sponsored reforestation projects are currently underway.

Monkey Puzzle Trees have long been important to the native peoples of Chile. The tasty, almond-sized seeds are a staple food of the Pehuenche Indians. The tree is honored at their altar of harvest, and is used in fertility ceremonies. The species’ significance to these Indians is reflected in their name, which means, “People of the Monkey Puzzle”.

While endangered in its natural habitat, the tree is clearly not facing extinction. Monkey Puzzle Trees today grow around the world as ornamentals. It all began in the late 18th century when Archibald Menzies (1754-1842), a naval surgeon and botanist, encountered seeds of the Monkey Puzzle Tree in Chile as part of a state dinner he attended. He kept a few of the seeds to identify later. They germinated as he traveled back to England, and they were planted in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. King William IV admired the trees and within a few years Monkey Puzzle Trees became prized specimens in plant collections throughout Europe and eventually anywhere the climate met their environmental needs. They prefer cool, mild, and humid climates, and tolerate most soil types, if well drained. They can cope with the salt near coasts, but are intolerant of air pollution and hot, dry soils.

Monkey Puzzle Trees can grow outdoors in New Jersey, if planted in a protected location. I know of specimens growing in Cumberland, Essex, and Monmouth counties. Monkey Puzzle Trees can also live year-round indoors, and some folks grow them for their unique appearance as houseplants.