The monkey puzzle tree

20th July 2001 at 01:00
With its colourful name and distinctive bottle-brush foliage, the monkey puzzle is the tree that children always spot from the back of the car. So it comes as no surprise to learn that Araucaria araucana is a survivor from the days of the dinosaurs, and one of the few plants that can be included in films such as Jurassic Park without anyone crying "foul".

A native of the Andes (its other common name is the Chile pine), this magnificent evergreen is the nearest living example of the sort of tree that grew in the Carboniferous period, about 300 million years ago, and which gave us our coal.

It was introduced to Britain in 1795, and in the middle of the following century the tree took off. It became a fashionable accessory to the Victorian villa, in the grounds of which many mature examples can still be seen.

In its natural habitat, the tree is valued as a source of durable wood and for its delicious and fatty almond-sized seeds. These grow in huge cones, each containing 200 or more seeds, and taking two or three years to ripen. When the cones finally crash to the ground, their contents can be ground into bread flour, stewed into a soup or fermented and distilled into a potent drink.

Anyone thinking of planting a monkey puzzle should do so with a view to the long term. Although it can grow to more than 100 feet in the UK (in the Andes, 150-foot Araucaria are not unknown), progress is painfully slow, with saplings barely reaching five feet after ten years and putting on a good show only after 30 or 40 years.

The tree, which should always be bought as a container-grown plant, likes moist, acid loam, regular feeding and full sun. It thrives in western parts of Britain. In fact, its nickname is believed to have originated in Cornwall, where a dignitary at a planting ceremony commented: "It would puzzle a monkey to climb that tree."

David Newnham

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