Araucaria araucana

A portrait of the Monkey Puzzle tree, a unique and wonderful South American conifer.
Richard Darlow, 106 Vaughan Road, Vernon Way, Gawber, Barnsley, S75 2NJ
Chamaerops No. 12, published online 23-09-2002

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This well-known tree is usually referred to as the 'Monkey Puzzle' - a name that has not always been fully understood - but it was once said that it would puzzle a monkey to climb it!

Araucaria is a genus of around 18 species, and, like the related Kauri Pines (Agathis sp.) they are members of the Araucariaceae family. All species are evergreen conifers and are found entirely in the Southern Hemisphere i.e. South America, Australasia and many South Pacific islands. The Norfolk Island Pine (A. heterophylla) also well-known, is commonly grown in coastal regions of Southern Europe.

The Monkey Puzzle hails from Chile and western Argentina and was named after the Arauca indians - native to this area. These 'reptilian' trees, which are relics from Prehistoric times (an idea candidate for Jurassic Park perhaps?) are found in large forests on mountain slopes at altitudes up to the snow line. Often these slopes are volcanic and the trees are to be found growing in nothing more than clinker and ash. Presumably though, such conditions are very fertile and well-drained as the trees certainly thrive.

Introduction to Britain was as long ago as 1795 by Archibald Menzies. He removed some of the edible seeds while at a dinner party with the Viceroy of Chile. The seeds are said to have germinated during the voyage back to England and during Victorian times the tree became very popular. Its popularity diminished during the 20th century but I have noticed that many young trees are now appearing in gardens of new housing developments. Perhaps the Monkey Puzzle is seeing a revival. I hope so.

Many people dislike the Monkey Puzzle and feel that it can look out of place. You either love them or hate them. Personally I love them - at least when they are well grown. They are very exotic and wonderfully architectural, almost artificial-looking, like a piece of living sculpture with the branches turning upwards, radiating out of the trunk in equidistant tiers. They need to be planted as isolated specimens, or, in a group (or grove!) if space permits. Although exotic-looking, they are very hardy when established but when very young, some protection is advisable against severe frost in cold areas. No other members of the genus are hardy in Britain, but a specimen of A. heterophylla lived 120 years (and grew as many feet high) at Tresco Abbey Gardens in the Isles of Scilly.

A. araucana grows quickly once established and can attain 20 feet in as many years, then growth slows down in later years. Ultimately it can reach heights of 30-50 metres in its native habitat and has achieved 29 metres in Britain in Bicton Park, Devon. Mature trees are either broad with a rounded domed top, or narrower and of a conical outline. Leaves are very hard, sharply pointed and scale-like, approximately 4x2cms, arranged spirally around the branches. The trunk is also covered in scaly leaves, which remain for many years before eventually falling as the bark thickens.

Sexes are usually separate and both trees need to be grown close together in order that fertile seeds can be produced. Male cones are long, narrow and pendulous, 6-12 cm in length and clusters of 1 to 6 appear near the branch tips. Initially green, they gradually turn brown and papery as they release their pollen. They persist on the tree for about a year. Female cones are large, shaped like coconuts and 15-20cms in diameter. They are usually produced towards the top of the tree at the ends of the branches. Also green initially, female cones consist of many narrow scales, which turn brown after about 2 years, eventually disintegrating to release the 4 cm seeds.

Monkey Puzzles are disease free, easy to grow, and are tolerant of most conditions including chalky soils. Very dry or boggy soils are the only conditions not tolerated. Preferring fertile, moist, well-drained soils, the best specimens in the British Isles are usually to be found in the wetter western areas. Less suitable conditions including urban air pollution can result in browning of the leaves and the premature loss of the lower branches. Such specimens are often unattractive and are all too often seen. I have, however, seen very good specimens in drier areas such as Woodhall Spa and Skegness, Lincoinchire. Where the best growing conditions are to be found, large trees can grow to perfection. A tree 40 or 50 feet in height with branches down to ground level is a sight to behold. A few years ago, I came across (and photographed) two very large, attractive specimens in Chesterfield, in private gardens just yards apart. Probably the best example I have seen growing in front of a the Hunters Moon Hotel in Torquay. It is 40 feet in height, and is densely clothed with branches virtually down to the ground and is of a perfect conical shape.

Monkey Puzzles associate well with other architectural plants such as palms, yuccas, pines etc and are a must for inclusion in an Exotic Garden planting scheme that is reasonably large. Why not plant one today?

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