About Kew's monkey puzzle trees
Archibald Menzies was a plant-collector and naval surgeon on board Captain George Vancouver’s 1791–1795 circumnavigation of the globe in Captain Cook’s former ship Discovery. The two roles went hand in hand as, at that time, medicines were primarily derived from plants.
Monkey puzzles in art
Menzies was served the seeds of the conifer as dessert during a dinner hosted by the governor of Chile. Rather than eat them, he sowed them in a frame on the ship’s quarterdeck and returned to England with five healthy plants. Sir Joseph Banks, Kew’s unofficial director, planted two seeds in his own garden and three at Kew. One survived in the Gardens until 1892.
The specimen at Kew is a much younger tree. It was planted here in 1978 and should live to be over 100 years old. More specimens can be seen in the Pinetum, including two of wild origin recently collected on a field trip to Chile.
Take a closer look
- Monkey puzzles have green, glossy leaves that overlap and completely cover each branch. Some people say they look a bit reptilian. Do you agree?
- Individual leaves can last 10 to 15 years. Where leaves have died, you might see the occasional bare patch on older branches.
- The tree gets its common name because gardeners thought its spiny branches would puzzle a climbing monkey. The monkey would also be puzzled to find itself in Chile, of course – there are no wild monkeys in this South American country.
Before the name 'monkey puzzle' caught on, this tree was often called the Chilean pine. However, is not a pine at all, coming from a different family. It is an evergreen conifer, and the indigenous people of Arauco, Chile eat its tasty seeds.
In the wild, monkey puzzles are found in Chile and Argentina, 600 to 1,800 metres above sea level in moist areas rich with volcanic ash. They grow in mixed deciduous and evergreen forests or in pure stands. Here they can live to be around 150 years old. They have a shorter lifespan in drier or more polluted climes.
Cultivation and uses
Originally discovered by Spanish explorer Don Francisco Dendariarena in the 1600s, monkey puzzle was for a while the most valuable timber in the southern Andes, used for railway sleepers, pit props, ship masts and paper pulp. Today it is a protected icon of the Global Trees Campaign and these uses have largely ended.
Its toasted seeds are still eaten by people living near monkey puzzle forests and its productivity (once it begins producing seed at around 30 to 40 years old) gives it commercial crop potential.
Chile declared the monkey puzzle tree a national monument in 1990.
- Scientific name: Araucaria araucana. This species was named after the Chilean province of Arauco where the tree was first discovered.
- Family: Araucariaceae
- Place of origin: Chile
- Conservation status: Vulnerable. Though protected by national monument status (it is illegal to cut down a wild monkey puzzle in Chile) and a CITES listing (controlling trade), this tree is still at risk in the wild.
- Date planted: 1978
- Height: This tree is a relative baby at 11.1 metres. Specimens up to 50 metres high are known.