by Nigel Summerley
Something older than the tyrannosaurus rex and the plesiosaur is alive and well and living in the UK. With a pedigree going back more than 200 million years, it is the mellifluously named araucaria – better known to gardeners as the monkey puzzle tree.
Having survived millennia in its natural habitat – the Andean slopes of Chile and Argentina – this remarkable love-it-or-loathe-it tree is became one of the world’s most threatened species. But thanks to a British-based conservation project, it should not go the way of the dinosaurs.
In South America, araucarias live for 1,200 years or more and grow to a height of 50 metres (160ft). With their side branches progressively “pruned” by the action of winter snows, they end up with a towering straight trunk topped by a dome of spiky green foliage, looking from a distance like giant parasols.
The seeds have always been an important part of the diet of the local Mapuche indians and any surplus has been sold for profit. This local delicacy was served up to the botanist Archibald Menzies in Chile in the 1790s; he pocketed some seeds, sowed them in pots and brought them to England. Fifty years later, the plant hunter William Lobb collected much larger quantities of seed for commercial purposes. But this was not the source of the first araucarias in Europe. A 17th-century German expedition is believed to have brought a few seeds home.
As an exotic new find, the tree was prized by the Victorians, one of whom on first seeing it declared: “It would puzzle a monkey to climb that.” From then on it was called the “monkey puzzler”, later shortened to monkey puzzle.
The monkey puzzle craze came and went, but in recent years it has returned again. And this time people will perhaps take more care about how they plant. Our forebears put the trees in their front gardens to show off these horticultural status symbols – but didn’t think about their successors having a huge conifer sprouting up and leaving everything else in the shade.
Araucaria plants have become steady sellers at some garden centres. And interest in the araucarias and their plight in the wild was kindled by the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh.
The International Conifer Conservation Programme (ICCP) based here grew 2,000 araucarias from seed collected in Chile and Argentina to distribute them to 130 private and public sites in the UK, with the aim of building up a future seed resource for re-forestation.
It’s most unlikely that araucarias will ever live as long in the UK as they do in South America. Although they can find favourable growing conditions, their development seems to be put out of sync by the general lack of severe winters to give them a “sleep” period. However, they don’t face the hazards of logging, over-collection of seeds, fire, grazing damage and volcanic eruptions that beset them in their native lands – even in national parks where they are officially protected.
The ICCP’s main concern was to highlight the plight of the trees in the wild. It worked with the Chileans to provide better protection for them, and looked at whether land could be purchased to create reserves. The coastal forests were the ones causing most concern because they had been almost totally destroyed by logging.
There are several places in the UK where you can see examples of well-established araucarias, such as the National Pinetum at Bedgebury which has 200 specimens that are 30 to 40 years old and 15 to 20 metres (50 to 65ft) high. ??
Places in the British Isles renowned for their araucarias include Westonbirt Arboretum, Gloucestershire; Bicton College of Agriculture, Devon; Biddulph Grange Garden, Staffordshire; National Pinetum and Forest Garden, Bedgebury, near Tunbridge Wells; Norfields, Llangwm Arboretum, Llangwm, Usk; Bridgemere Garden World, near Nantwich, Cheshire; and Powerscourt Estate Gardens, Dublin.
The best place of all to sees araucarias is still in central Chile, where you can walk in a prehistoric landscape and marvel at the gigantic scale of the trees and their forests, set among volcanoes and lakes. Scenes for the BBC’s “Living With Dinosaurs” TV programme were shot in Villarrica National Park .
It was in Villarrica that I learned to love the araucarias and I don’t think anyone could walk beneath these mighty green parasols and not be similarly smitten. No garden setting can do them justice – but the araucarias growing in the gardens of the UK may help to ensure that those great South American forests never disappear.
Monkey puzzle facts
Araucarias like acid soil that doesn’t dry out. Male and female trees are needed to successfully produce seed; but there are stories of some trees being both male and female – and some males changing sex. The female trees produce large globe-shaped cones, while the males have much smaller ones. As the trees get older, bits of them can shower off, and they can also be susceptible to honey fungus. The World Conservation Union listed the tree as threatened in the wild, and the Convention in Trade of Endangered Species banned international trade of its timber.