Chilean pine no puzzle for this monkey

Norfolk Island has one species of araucaria, Araucaria heterophylla (commonly and sensibly called the Norfolk Island Pine) native to its 35 square kilometres. This species is found no-where else in nature, but commonly in seaside and other public plantings.

At about the same latitude on the Australian mainland, and then more rarely further north above Cairns, grows the Bunya Pine, Araucaria bidwillii. Its remaining natural populations in southern Queensland are scattered over an area of about 19,000 square kilometres. It too is relatively common in cultivation although often having to be fenced off when the dropping of its football-sized cones risk serious injury to those walking underneath.

The third Australian species, Hoop Pine, Araucaria cunninghamii, grows naturally in New South Wales and Queensland, as well as in Papua New Guinea which also has a species of its own, Araucaria hunsteinii. There are another two species in South America. The best known is the Monkey Puzzle Tree, Araucaria araucana, or more helpfully sometimes Monkey Tail Tree (the 'puzzle' name refers to how challenging it would be to climb this spiky leaved tree, even for a monkey) from Chile and Argentina. The other is the Paraná or Brazilian Pine, Aracauria angustifolia, of southern Brazil and bits of Argentina and Paraguay.

This accounts for six of the 19 species of araucaria on Earth today.

The other 13 species are restricted to the 19,000 square kilometres of New Caledonia, about 1200 kilometres east of mainland Australia. This is amazing, but today I'm not going to talk about the ridiculously diverse and fascinating flora of New Caledonia, but about South America, where as you know I've just spent a week or two.

In the parks in Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Santiago (Chile) you see plenty of Brazilian and Bunya Pine, but very little of the Monkey Puzzle Tree. In Santiago there are a few young specimens planted in the Jardín Mapulemu which they promised me will grow into towering trees, but the general wisdom is that it's too hot in these cities.

The Monkey Puzzle Tree once formed extensive forests in southern Brazil and Chile, in cooler, high-altitude areas. Today it is under threat of extinction due to previously widespread timber harvesting but there are some beautiful stands in the parks near Pucon in southern Chile. The pictures here are from Huerquehue National Park, about 40 km from Pucon and with a nice view of Villarrica volcano (which erupted in March this year, leading to the evacuation of Pucon) about 50 km away.

According to Kew Gardens, Archibald Menzies introduced the tree into England in 1795, only fifteen years after a Spanish explorer became the first European to see it in South America. Menzies squirreled away some seeds he was served as a dessert, while eating with the Governor of Chile. He sowed the seed while at seed and returned with five plants, one of which grew in Kew Gardens, London, until 1892.  

The common name alludes to the fact that the task of climbing the tree, with its sharp branches tightly clothed with spiny leaves, would puzzle even a monkey.

It was in Kew Gardens I last saw a mature (well, teenager) specimen, on the lawn near the Orangery. What surprised me about it in nature was the trunk, with its plates or large tessellation (I remember the excitement around the Wollemi Pine, a relative in the same plant family, and its coco-pop textured bark)...

...and the cryptogamic flora on those trunks (up high mostly a kind of Usnea, or Old Man's Beard, giving a grey-green colour to its trunks).

Well, that and its striking visage as trees, some of them reputedly 1500-2000 years old, emerged above southern beech (Nothofagus) forest. As we enjoyed the view across a lake that reminded me of south-west Tasmania (although the water was glacial blue rather than tannin tea-coloured) our guide, Gonzalo, completed the experience by offering us seed to eat. Unlike those served to Menzies, ours were boiled and quite dead. 

As we enjoyed our lunch of sandwiches enhanced with Monkey Puzzle Tree 'nuts' another forest of this species was burning a few hundred km away. The species is listed as vulnerable to extinction (not the highest rating but one that means we need to keep an eye on the remaining populations) and it has been declared a 'national monument' in Chile, which seems very fitting. This all means you won't find wall paneling, tables and lamp stands like these in the 1950s designed and built Hotel Antumalal, just out of Picon.

As to seeing one in Australia, I remember a fine specimen in the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden at Mount Tomah, near Sydney, and here in Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne we have this, with a few (hundred) years growth to come and dutifully worried over by Chris Cole.


Stuart Read said…
Thanks Tim, half your luck seeing m.p.forests/groves in the wild. They're rare in Australia, I think as it's generally too warm, bit like those cities you mention. Pleasing to see the Bunya pine diaspora grows - lots of these in European gardens, esp. southern Europe. I think it's just one 'm' for A.cunninghamii.
Talking Plants said…
Thanks Stuart - for comments and corrections (always appreciated...). Tim
Gonzalo... said…
Finally someone gives a real answer to the Monkey Puzzle Tree Name
Thank you very much Tim

Gonzalo from Antumalal (not the guide, but the guy on the front desk)
Talking Plants said…
Thanks Gonzalo! Still a bit of mystery but pleased to help out. We very much enjoyed our (short) stay there.
Best wishes, Tim
Jens C. Kruse said…
Really a touching work all the one really love this, we want to protect our nature by planting. The trees are really our good friend and protected from many things. Nature is always a mystery.Please choose best thesis writing service provider for brake it.
Tim, thanks for the clarity. There is a wonderful, very tall and old Monkey Puzzle tree in the marvellous garden at Hatfield House in the UK - early home of Queen Elizabeth the First and, later largely rebuilt as a country residence for the Stuarts. Regards Jannette Greenwood
Talking Plants said…
Thanks Jannette. That's a garden I haven't visited but must get there one day! Monkey Puzzles do look wonderfully exotic and evocative in the English garden landscape. Best wishes, Tim
Martin said…
Just found this beautifully inspired text randomly while researching Araucariaceae.... Thanks for that.... i learned a lot...