Trees: Monkey Puzzle
Running through some neighborhoods in NE Portland, there were these unusual looking evergreen trees. As a “plant guy,” I have always loved trees that I could climb, grow or admire from afar, but I did not know these trees. They had the strangest trunk, branches and cones I had ever seen. Funny I had not noticed them before. But considering that nearly all of my runs are early morning, before dawn, it was understandable.
With a bit of research and some asking around the neighborhood, I found my answer. The Pryhar sisters were my “go-to source” for unique information on plants. Our neighbors on Wistaria Drive, the sisters were always sweetly “loaned us” lots of perennial flowers over the years. Number 10 tin cans with drooping transplants would show up on our doorsteps at Father’s Day, or any day for that matter, with a handwritten note of where to plant it and how to care for it. The Pryhar sisters were great neighbors to us. They were also master gardeners who turned up their noses at “common rhodies” or “plain pansies.” Their garden was one of the masterpieces of native, weird, wild and beautiful plants in the entire city.
When I inquired about the strange trees I had spotted, Sherry Pryhar said without hesitation, “The trees you are talking about are Monkey Puzzle Trees or Monkey Tail Trees. They are all a little over 100 years old.” When I asked her how she knew their age, she said that the trees, native to South America, had been given away as seedlings to all takers during the Lewis & Clark Centennial (1905) in downtown Portland. The Centennial was a sort of World’s Fair, and exotic items from around the globe were on display, doled out and for sale. Most of the Monkey Puzzle trees were planted in the yards of NE Portland dwellers from that celebration from long ago. Now over 100 years later there are about 50 of them that tower over the homes and streets of Portland. They seem to like the climate.
Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana)
The Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) is known by a few nicknames: Monkey Tail tree, Chilean Pine tree or Pehuén tree. It is the national tree of Chile, South America. According to wikipedia, it is an evergreen that grows to over 130 feet in height and 7 feet in diameter. It grows from central and southern Chile to western Argentina and it is endangered (2013) due to its declining abundance.
The “leaves-needles” are thick, tough, scale-like triangles that look like something growing on Caliban’s skin from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
The leaves have sharp edges and a pointed pin-like tip. The leaves persist for 10 to 15 years or more so they cover most of the tree, except for the older branches and tree trunk.
The Monkey Puzzle has male and female trees, but can occasionally have cones from both sexes (dioecious) on one tree. The male tree typically pollinates the female with its oblong, cucumber-shaped cones, which expand quite a few inches, very male-like at pollen release time. The trees are wind-pollinated. The female seed cones mature in autumn about 18 months after pollination. The female cones hold about 200 seeds. The cones disintegrate at maturity and release the nut-like seeds to the ground.
Female cones (top), Male cones (bottom)
A native of the lower slopes of the central Andes, the Monkey Puzzle is typically above 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) from sea level. The younger juvenile trees exhibit a broad pyramid shaped profile, which naturally develops into a distinctive umbrella form as the species matures and grows to climax heights. The tree’s shape resembles the Norfolk Island Pine, first found on Norfolk Island off the coast of New Zealand, but the Monkey Puzzle does not seem to be related to that tree. The Monkey Puzzle prefers well drained, slightly acidic volcanic soil but it will tolerate most any soil provided it drains well.
Select species have been reported to be living and thriving in Western Europe, Canada, New Zealand, Southeastern Australia and Portland, Oregon. It is even tolerant of coastal salt spray in various parts of the planet and may be a potential source of protein to places, like Western Scotland, where other nut crops do not grow. The nutty seeds of the Monkey Puzzle are similar to piñon pine nuts of the American Southwest, except they are twice as large. The nuts are extensively harvested in Chile. The trick to harvesting the nut seeds is patience, as it takes the tree between 30 and 40 years for it to mature enough to produce a good nut crop. The longevity of the tree (up to 1,000 years) makes up for the late start, for those around long enough to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
The story of the origin of the name Monkey Puzzle sounds like a shaggy dog story, but it is worth retelling, even if it may be apocryphal. The story is that a gardener in Great Britain cultivated the tree in his garden around 1850. He was showing the tree to his botanical friends in Cornwall and one of the friends remarked, “[That tree] would puzzle a monkey to climb it.” As the species had no existing popular name at the time, the tree was called the Money Puzzler, then simply Monkey Puzzle, which has stuck to this day. In France the tree is known as désespoir des singes, which translates as “Monkeys’ Despair.”
Seems like a good name for a strange looking tree that I can stand back and admire.