My 3rd graders are studying the Monkey Puzzle tree on campus. I have noticed these unusual trees around the Puget Sound for years but never knew anything about them. More than just a botanical oddity, these trees are really cool and worth considering if you live in the Maritime Northwest.
The botanical name is Araucaria araucana, they are also called Chilean Pine or Monkey Tail Tree. It is an evergreen conifer that grows in part shade to full sun and in a variety of soils as long as there is good drainage. It grows in locations with abundant rainfall and a mild climate. It is extremely tolerant of salt-laden maritime winds and is hardy down to -4 degrees Fahrenheit. Monkey Puzzle grows natively at elevations above 3,300 feet in the foothills of the Andes in Chile and Argentina. It also thrives in the British Isles, the Maritime Northwest and New Zealand.
Monkey Puzzle got its common name in 1834. The story has it that a proud owner of a young tree was showing it off to a group when one of the visitors remarked that “it would puzzle a monkey to climb that.” The name Monkey Puzzle stuck.
They grow from seeds and are very slow growing. It takes 1 to 2 months for a seed to germinate and it can take up to 30 or 40 years to produce seeds. Monkey Puzzle can grow to be over 100 feet tall and 50 feet across. The trunk can be 3 to 5 feet in diameter. They can live for over 1000 years. Fossils have been found dating back to the time of the dinosaurs.
Monkey Puzzle seeds are edible. The female cones produce many large delicious seeds. Seeds are a staple crop for many indigenous people where it grows natively. Mature trees are highly productive and it is said that 18 female trees could sustain one adult year-round.
Monkey Puzzle are not self-fertile. Flowers are either male or female but only one sex is found on any one plant. It is fertilized by wind. One male plant can fertilize 4 to 6 female trees. They make cones in late fall. Male cones are oblong and shaped like cucumbers. They are 3 to 5 inches long and 2 inches across. Female cones are large and globelike. They can be 5 to 8 inches in diameter. Female cones contain up to 300 seeds and take 1 ½ to 2 years to ripen. Cones are ripe December through January. When mature, cones disintegrate and fall to the ground for easy harvesting.
Araucaria araucana is listed as an endangered species. It is threatened due to logging, overgrazing and massive forest fires in 2001 and 2002 that destroyed thousands of acres of Monkey Puzzle forest. My students and are I actively collecting seeds to eat and grow. With any luck we’ll have some for our May Plant Sale.