“It would puzzle a monkey to climb that!”
by Peggy Edwards
Yet, there is no puzzle as to why redwoods (tree to the left) and monkey puzzle trees (tree to the right) are often close by to each other, as Victorian 'plant hunters' brought these prestigious varieties back to large gardens and estates across Scotland.
So, the Scottish Redwood Trust is also documenting the monkey puzzle trees (Aracaria Araucana). So far, our intrepid tree spotters have discovered 160 of monkey puzzles throughout Scotland, some of which are new trees.
[photograph to left: SEGI & ARAR Gillies Hill 5-15-20 Douglas Todd]
The monkey puzzle, the national tree of Chile, is native to central and southern Chile and western Argentina where it grows on the lower slopes of the Andes. Its conservation status was changed to Endangered by the IUCN in 2013 due to the dwindling population caused by logging (banned in 1990), forest fires, and grazing. This means that the the monkey puzzle trees in Scotland form part of what’s known as an ex situ population, trees that serve as a “tree bank” for species that may be threatened in their native habitat.
Monkey puzzle trees are usually “dioecious” with male (pollen cones) and female cones on separate trees. A group of six female trees with one male for pollination can yield several thousand seeds per year. In fact, there’s been talk in Scotland - where the trees do well - of growing them for their nuts. Monkey puzzles don’t produce nuts for 30-40 years, but since the species has been in Britain for over 200 years, trees are producing cones and seedlings. Once the trees start producing, they have the potential to do so for 1000 years!
[photogrsph oppodiyr ARAR Bryden's Farm 5-24-20 John Lamont]
Like pine nuts, Monkey puzzle seeds are edible – a fact directly related to the trees’ arrival in Britain. In 1795, while dining with the Viceroy of Chile the Scottish botanist, Archibald Menzies of Douglas fir fame, was served the seeds of the “Chile Pine” as a dessert. He carefully put a few of them into his pocket and grew them on board ship on the way back to Europe returning with the first five monkey puzzles seen in Britain. Monkey puzzles soon became a popular addition to botanical and formal estate gardens.
[illustration: 1868 AJ Wendel Dutch
The tree’s Latin name araucana honors the native Araucanians whose diet was based on the
nuts. The name "monkey puzzle" originated about 1850, when Sir William Molesworth at Pencarrow garden in Cornwall, showed his young tree to his friends and barrister Benthamist Charles Austin commented that, "It would puzzle a monkey to climb that".
The largest monkey puzzle trees in girth in Scotland are in the Benmore Botanic Garden in Argyll at 3.25m; and at Castle Kennedy at 2.59m.
Written by Peggy Edwards, June 2020
Peggy Edwards is a botanical illustrator and redwood aficionado. She has a BSc from the University of California and a Graduate Certificate Natural Science Illustration from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has been a field Botanist, Naturalist and K-12 Teacher. She is one of the co-founders of the Scottish Redwood Trust.