The Monkey Puzzle Tree

November 16, 2023

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Photographer: Patti Weeks   

Summary Author: Patti Weeks

While on a recent tour in the Netherlands, I noticed an unusual and distinctive tree in several provinces. It was the Monkey Puzzle Tree, native to the South American Andes Mountains in Argentina and Chile. It’s the national tree of Chile and is referred to as Piñonero, Pehuén, and the Chilean pine, although not actually a pine, but an evergreen conifer. A close relative to the Norfolk Island pine, its scientific name Araucaria araucana references the indigenous Araucanina Mapuche, of the territory of Arauco in southern Chile. The tree is sacred to the Mapuche, and the 1.5-inch (3.81 cm) seeds are edible and can be ground for flour.

Unfortunately, the tree, once in large dense forests on the high Patagonia volcanic slopes, is endangered today due to land clearance by fire, logging, and over-grazing. However, the endemic austral parakeet, with an insatiable appetite for the seeds, helps regenerate new trees by dropping partially consumed seeds as they fly away from the tree. Click here for a video of the parakeets and a human harvesting the seeds atop a mature tree.

Practically a living fossil, this ancient species existed alongside the dinosaurs in the Jurassic Period over 145 million years ago. Its hardiness and tough, spike-like leaves, which cover the entire branch, are thought to have saved it from plant-eating dinosaurs. The tree made its way to the Netherlands via Scottish and British explorers, who in the early 19th century, brought the seeds back to Europe as an exotic treat, and for wealthy citizens to propagate as an ornamental tree in their countries. Its peculiar nickname came from a landowner in England who in 1850 quipped, "It would even puzzle a monkey to climb that tree."

The tree matures slowly and can live up to 1,000 years and can reach up to 160 feet (48.8 m) with a trunk circumference up to 7 feet (2.13 m). A young tree is rather pyramid-shaped — like the first tree pictured here in the northern Netherlands province of Groningen — whereas a mature tree in the wild gradually develops a towering umbrella-like canopy of branches as the lower branches fall off in a self-pruning process. Monkey puzzle trees are dioecious, that is the male and seed-producing female cones grow on separate trees. The second photo, taken on a rainy day in the province of North Holland, shows the overlapping spiked leaves covering the branches in a spiraled fractal-like pattern.


Province of Groningen, Netherlands Coordinates: 53.2887, 6.7061

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