The Monkey Puzzle tree is one that most people can recognise and name easily. Its official name is Araucaria Araucana, but it is more commonly known as the monkey tail tree, monkey puzzle tree, pewen, piñonero, or Chilean pine, depending on your location. It is also occasionally called a living fossil thanks to the ancient and prehistoric prevalence of similar species. Indeed, it lived over 200 million years ago and was around in the time of the dinosaurs! The spiney needles work as a protection from grazing animals that are now extinct.
The tree is native to southern and central Chile (hence one of its names as the Chilean pine) and western Argentina. In Chile, the tree has been declared as a natural monument back in 1976 so that it is protected from logging. As Chile’s national tree, it is now considered an endangered tree species since 2013 due to habitat fragmentation, forest fires, and illegal felling.
In Chile, the tree is called a Pehuén and it is considered sacred to the Pehuenche people. The seeds form a part of their diet dating back to ancient times.
It grows on the Costal Cordillera (the Chilean coastal mountain range) to the Andes in Argentina. It loves soil that is slightly acidic and well-drained, but it can tolerate pretty much any type of soil as long as there is no issue with drainage.
In its natural habitat, it is often found over 1000m above sea level. It is by far the hardiest tree of its genus and grows well in other areas of the world such as in western Europe, the U.S. west coast (in Alaska), as well as south-east Australia and New Zealand. It can withstand coastal air but does not take well to pollution exposure. Given that Chile is quite a volcanic country, the trees survive well in volcanic areas too as the bark is resistant to fire. Pockets of trees have even been known to survive flows of lava.
Monkey Puzzle Facts
The tree is an evergreen that grows between one and one and a half meters in diameter and typically between 30 and 40 meters in height although larger trees of up to 50 meters are not uncommon. It has a resinous bark and generally branches out in fives. The leaves are stiff, leathery, and spiky, and are formed in triangle shapes. They spiral around the branches and the trunk of the tree. The leaves allegedly have a typical lifespan stretching 24 years, covering the majority of the tree other than older branches.
Each tree has flowers that are either male or female. This is known as being dioecious. The male flowers are erect, oval-shaped, and can be up to 15cm in length. The female cones are usually between 10 and 18cm in length and are spherical. The seeds of the trees are dispersed by squirrels and jay birds with the wind aiding in pollination. The seeds take over two years to reach maturity and incredibly the trees can live to be over 1,000 years. Other rodents, such as the long-haired grass mouse, also consume and therefore disperse the monkey puzzle seeds. This mouse buries the seeds in their entirety in places that are favourable for their germination, which other animals do not always do.
Why Do We Call it a Monkey Puzzle Tree?
This unusual name is thought to have come from the 19th Century when one was planted in a ceremony at Pencarrow, an estate in Cornwall. Allegedly, a guest touched the branches of the tree and then remarked how climbing it would be a puzzle for monkeys. Since then, it became known as a Monkey Puzzle tree. Thankfully, no monkeys have had to try it out as Cornwall, or indeed Chile, have native monkeys.
The Monkey Puzzle Tree as a Habitat
The tree is home to many creatures. Indeed, the slender-billed parakeet makes its home in the trees as do more than 70 different sorts of insects. Without the monkey puzzle tree, these creatures would not survive as they have not been found to inhabit any other tree species on earth.
Monkey Puzzle Uses
The monkey puzzle tree has had many uses over its long existence. One of its first uses was in making railway sleepers that would give access to steelworks, coal fields, ceramic industries, and paper mills that began to build up around the city of Concepción, a port in Chile’s industrial centre.
Later, people used the timber for smaller items such as ladders, piano interiors, rulers, oars, general carpentry jobs, and even in aeroplanes. Meanwhile, here in the United Kingdom, monkey puzzle trees became a typical feature of Victorian parks.
The monkey puzzle’s seeds, or piñones, are edible and are similar to pine nuts but larger. The indigenous populations in Chile and Argentina frequently harvest them. It could be considered a food crop in other areas too, such as in the west of Scotland where nut crops of other types generally do not do well.
Harvesting the seeds is straightforward as the cones drop by themselves. But monkey puzzle trees do not produce seeds when the tree is young. The yields once a tree reaches maturity, at around 30 or 40 years old, can be huge. This often means that investments in creating monkey puzzle orchards are not generally considered. A group of six female monkey puzzle trees with one male tree will generally be enough to produce a huge yield each year.
Another use for monkey puzzle trees is as a gemstone. Whilst this isn’t a use per se, the gemstone Whitby Jet is said to come from fossilised trees similar to the monkey puzzle tree.
Conserving Monkey Puzzle Trees
Given their heavy logging due to their knot-free fine timber, as mentioned above, they became ‘national monuments’ in their native Chile and thus their felling is now strictly prohibited. Organisations set up national reserves to protect the trees but even so, they continue to be under threat. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has them on their Red List of Conifers due to their endangerment.
There was a project by the Global Trees Campaign that planted around 2000 monkey puzzle trees. They found that, after ten years, 90% of the trees had survived.
Article was written by Conner D.