Monkey puzzle (Araucaria araucana)
Monkey puzzle is an evergreen tree grown for ornamental purposes in Europe and north America. They can live for 1000 years, although they were only brought to the UK in the Victorian era.
Common name: monkey puzzle; Chilean pine; monkey tail tree; araucaria; piñonero (Spanish)
Scientific name: Araucaria araucana
UK provenance: non-native
Interesting fact: this species was given the common name of 'monkey puzzle' by the Victorians who thought monkeys would be puzzled trying to climb its spiny spiralling branches.
What does monkey puzzle look like?
Overview: monkey puzzle has a very distinct appearance. Reaching up to 30 metres in height, it has a stout, almost cylindrical bole with smooth bark that has a purplish-brown colour. Around the base of the stem it is sometimes possible to see traces of leaves that once grew there. Sometimes the base of a large tree can resemble an elephant's foot.
Leaves: green, spiky, stiff, leathery, glossy and triangular-shaped. They are thick and broad at the base and sharp at the edges and tips. They are arranged in a spiral around the trunk.
Flowers: monkey puzzles are dioecious, meaning male and female flowers grow on separate trees. Male catkins, which usually only appear after 150 years of growth, are 10 centimetre long clusters of narrow green stamens which turn yellow and then brown at the end of summer. Female catkins are spiny cones which appear after around 50 years of growth.
Fruits: cones are green with gold with hairlike edges. They grow at the tips of branches. Cones ripen over two or three years and eventually turn brown and release large brown seeds.
Look out for: the distinctive leathery leaves are spiky, stiff, and triangle-shaped. The scales of the cones are sharply pointed.
Could be confused with: unlikely to be confused with anything.
Identified in winter by: monkey puzzle is evergreen, so it keeps its leaves year round.
Where to find monkey puzzle
Monkey puzzle is native to central and southern Chile and western Argentina. It was introduced to the UK during the Victorian era and is now widely planted as an ornamental in parks and gardens.
This species has been around for 200 million years when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Its spine-like needles acted as protection from ancient grazing animals now long extinct.
Value to wildlife
In its native South America, monkey puzzle is home to the slender-billed parakeet and over 70 species of endemic insects.
Mythology and symbolism
it is considered unlucky to talk while passing underneath a monkey puzzle tree. It is said speaking whilst passing one will bring bad luck or cause you to grow a monkey's tail.
There is an old Fenland belief that planting a monkey puzzle on edge of a graveyard would prevent the devil from entering the graveyard during a burial. This association with the devil extends country-wide; many even believe that the devil lives in the monkey puzzle tree and that speaking whilst passing it must be discouraged lest he is disturbed.
It is possible that this story of the devil living in the tree was invented by concerned parents trying to stop their children climbing the spiky branches.
How we use monkey puzzle
In the UK monkey puzzles are planted as ornamental trees although the seeds are edible and delicious when toasted. The timber has been widely used for general carpentry in Chile due to its lack of knots.
Due to heavy logging in Chile the trees have been categorised as 'endangered' on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Global Red List meaning it is illegal to cut down a wild monkey puzzle in Chile.