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Reptilian branch of the monkey puzzle

The tree that would puzzle a monkey

The first in a series of occasional articles about trees by Joan Taylor-Rowan. Here, Joan introduces the monkey puzzle tree.

Latin name: Araucaria araucana
Common name: Monkey puzzle tree, Chilean pine
Location: Alexandra Park, Markwick Terrace

Who can resist a monkey puzzle tree? It has an umbrella-shaped crown, a leathery trunk – the base of which resembles an elephant’s foot, and it can reach a height of 30-40m. Its branches and even its trunk, are clothed in thick triangular leaves, and it resembles an armour-plated pangolin rather than a tree. The leaves can live for 20 years and the tree itself for more than 1,000. A serious contender then, for the country’s most eye-catching tree – if such an award existed.

The popular name “monkey puzzle” tree is said to have originated in 1850 with the noted barrister and railway enthusiast Charles Austin. When shown a specimen of this rare tree in the estate of a friend, he commented that the tree was so strange it would “puzzle a monkey.” It became known as the monkey-puzzler and then the monkey puzzle tree. Such is the lure of the monkey puzzle tree that one of The Guardian’s best-loved compilers of cryptic crosswords used “Araucaria” as his pen-name. You can find a wonderful example of this magnificent tree in Alexandra Park, and if you are nearer St Leonards, you can admire a striking specimen on Markwick Terrace in a private front garden. It’s completely visible from the street.

Although this tree is not native to Britain, in the ancient past a very close relative of the modern-day monkey puzzle tree, clearly was. The prehistoric fossilised wood of Araucaria, is found in Yorkshire and is the material that provides us with the desirable gemstone – Whitby jet. South Africa may have the best diamonds, and Australia unrivalled opals, but Britain has Whitby jet. The intensity of its colour gave us the term – jet black.  This dazzling and valuable material was hewn from cliff faces at great risk to the excavators, to meet the demand for jet jewellery made fashionable by Queen Victoria after the death of Prince Albert.

The monkey puzzle is the national tree of Chile where it is indigenous. It was the Victorians, with their mania for plants, that brought the tree to Britain and it immediately became popular in public parks and private gardens. In Chile its prized for its seeds which look and taste similar to pine nuts but are 3-4cm long – but don’t give up your tomatoes – it can take 40 years to get your first crop. And if that doesn’t put you off, the monkey puzzle tree is dioecious – which means each tree is usually either male or female. The male trees have long slim (pollen) cones and female trees have large, round seed-bearing cones – so you need two trees close enough for the wind-borne pollen to reach the seed-bearing cones, before you can even think about becoming a pine-nut tycoon. And if you’re still determined, be warned that humans are not the only ones to enjoy the seeds – the prodigious appetite of squirrels and wild boar (less of a problem in Hastings) are said to have reduced the number of seedlings that get a chance to mature, which has affected the future security of the species.

Although logging was banned in Chile in 1990, the monkey puzzle is still classified as endangered in its natural habitat, as a result of forest fires, over-harvesting and grazing. So, if you can’t make a trip to Chile to see one in its natural home, make a trip to Alexandra Park in Hastings, and admire and appreciate this arboreal stunner.

Joan was inspired to write a series of articles about trees after interviewing tree champion Dr Owen Johnson MBE. You can read her article about him here.

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Posted 15:36 Wednesday, Dec 1, 2021 In: Green Times

Also in: Green Times

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