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Monkey Puzzle Tree (Araucaria Araucana)

Back in the 1800’s a noted barrister observed that “climbing the spiny trailing branches of this tree would be a puzzle even for a monkey" and it became known by the name we use today. The French name Desespoir des Singes means Monkeys’ Despair.

It is also called the Chilean Pine and is native toSouth America. The label "living fossil" is justified as it has been around for 200 million years, from the time when dinosaurs roamed our planet.

British plant hunters in the late 1700’s imported many exotic and weird plants which were were extremely expensive and became the equivalent of fashion accessories for the grounds of the landed gentry in Victorian times. Monkey Puzzles were popular in public spaces such as parks and cemeteries.

It is a very striking, long-lived tree with a trunk up to 5 ft. in diameter and can reach 150 ft. in height. As an evergreen, it keeps its overlapping sharply pointed leaves all year long. The female trees need to grow near male ones so that cross-pollination can occur and produce the nutritious seeds which are like large pine nuts. They are a valuable food crop in South America and can be milled to produce flour.

Before they received endangered species status, the wood was useful for railway sleepers, general carpentry, ladders piano interiors and even aeroplanes. Whitby jet, much loved by Victorians, is fossilised wood from a similar species.

The nuts are eaten by jays and squirrels and the tree can be home to up to 70 UK insects. (but no monkeys!)

Lastly a warning - in its native land the Monkey Puzzle is a sacred tree and there is folklore which claims the Devil sits in the tree. This is why you must walk past it quietly and remain silent under the tree in case he notices you and you are punished with three years of bad luck or grow a monkey’s tail.

Author: Joan Stacey


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