The science bit
Evergreen tree up to 50m tall. Bark resinous and generally branching in fives. Leaves spiky, stiff, leathery and rounded-triangle-shaped, arranged spirally around trunk and branches. Each plant has either male or female flowers (dioecious): male flowers oval-shaped and erect, up to 15cm long; female cones spherical, usually 10–18cm long. Seeds dispersed by jays and squirrels. Pollinated by wind.
- In Chile the tree is called the Pehuén and is sacred to the local Pehuenche people: its seeds are an ancient staple of their diet.
- The tree possibly gained its name because it would be a real puzzle for monkeys to climb up its whorls of spiny leaves, but there are no monkeys in Chile!
- The tree was alive 200 million years ago and rubbed shoulders with the dinosaurs. Its spine-like needles acted as protection from ancient grazing animals now long extinct.
- It can live for 1,000 years and grows to 50m high with a trunk diameter of over 3m. Its large seeds, pinones, take two years to mature.
- It grows on the slopes of rocky volcanoes and its bark is fire resistant, so ‘islands’ of trees can even survive lava flows!
Where it grows
From the Chilean Coastal Range (Coastal Cordillera) of mountains to the Andes mountains in Argentina. It thrives in well-drained, slightly acidic, volcanic soil but will tolerate almost any soil type providing it drains well. It is usually found above 1000m altitude in its natural habitat.
The monkey puzzle was first used extensively to make railway sleepers for access to the coal fields, steel works, paper mills and ceramics industries that built up around Concepción, the port at the industrial heart of Chile. Later the timber was used for general carpentry, ladders, skis, piano interiors, oars, rulers and even aeroplanes. In the UK, the monkey puzzle became an archetypal Victorian park tree.
These trees have been heavily logged for over a century for their fine knot-free timber. In 1976 they were declared 'natural monuments' and their felling strictly prohibited. National nature reserves were set up to protect them, but they are still under threat, and listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Global Red List of Conifers.
The tree is home to the slender-billed parakeet and over 70 types of insects that live nowhere else on earth, but no monkeys!