The prehistoric-looking Monkey Puzzle Tree
Common Name: Monkey Puzzle Tree, Chilean Pine
Scientific Name: Araucaria araucana
The large cone of the Monkey Puzzle Tree
The Monkey Puzzle Tree is one of those trees that remind me of the long-lasting investment of planting a tree. These funky looking evergreen trees, with leathery leaves that cover the branches, can take 30-40 years before they will give their first harvest of nuts, and they have the potential to live for over 1,000 years! What a gift to our descendants. How many actions in our lives have that much forward thinking involved?
I had read of the Monkey Puzzle Tree for many years, but it wasn’t until about three years ago that I ever saw one in person. It was growing in Washington State at the Meerkerk Rhondodendron Gardens on Whidbey Island. It was a single specimen about thirty years old. Unfortunately, this isolated plant will never produce a nut crop. While I have yet to taste a Monkey Puzzle Tree’s nut, I have tasted the nuts from the very closely related Paraná pine (Araucaria angustifolia) when I was traveling in Brazil. These nuts are massive and tasty. It is common for groups of people to sit around talking for hours slowly eating through a pile of freshly roasted cones and drinking chimarrão, a traditional tea made from dried Yerba Mate leaves (Ilex paraguariensis).
My plan is to get these and my other nut trees in the ground as soon as possible after I acquire my land. I hope to get at least one harvest before I die… just another reason I need to live a long life!
Native to South America (central and southern Chile and western Argentina), the Monkey Puzzle Tree was a native food source and sacred plant to the Mapuche in Chile. The wood was prized for lumber, but due to over harvesting and its slow growth rate, it is now rarely used. This tree has been exported around the world due to its unique appearance and is typically used as a specimen tree in gardens; however, there has been some minimal experimentation of using this a food crop in areas with cool oceanic summers where other crops do not grow well.
- Trunk diameter can get to 7 feet (2 meters)
- The Monkey Puzzle Tree is the nation tree of Chile
- There are male trees and female trees.
- Male trees bear “male” or “pollen” cones
- Female trees bear “female” or “seed” cones
- Female/Seed cones take 18 months to mature and will hold about 200 seeds
- While it is commonly called a Chilean Pine Tree, it is not technically in the Pine Tree family.
- The name “Monkey Puzzle” comes from the following story: “The proud owner of a young specimen at Pencarrow garden near Bodmin in Cornwall was showing it to a group of friends, and one made the remark "It would puzzle a monkey to climb that"; as the species had no existing popular name, first 'monkey puzzler', then 'monkey puzzle' stuck.”
- When young, the tree has a typical conical “pine tree” shape, but as it matures and grows taller, the lower braches drop off. The resulting tree shape resembles a lollipop.
The large nuts from the female cones of the Monkey Puzzle Tree
USING THIS PLANT
- Seed/Nut – large, almond-sized (1-1.5 inch/3-4 cm), excellent-tasting nuts are produced in large cones. Raw or cooked.
- Specimen or landscape tree
- General insect nectar plant
- Wildlife seek shelter in this large tree
- Wildlife food source
- Maritime plant – tolerant of salt spray
- Lumber – good quality with wide trunks; however, these trees grow slowly, so they are not an ideal, sustainable lumber crop.
- Coppice plant – although considering the slow growth rate, this may not be such a good idea unless you have a large planting
Yield: No reliable information available, but a mature tree will produce a lot of seeds.
Harvesting: Autumn. Mature female/seed cones will fall to the ground
Storage: If kept in a cool, dry location, Monkey Puzzle Tree seeds can store for over 6 months and possibly a full year.
The very spiny leaves of the Monkey Puzzle Tree.
DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT
USDA Hardiness Zone: 6-8 (some sources are more generous at 7-11)
AHS Heat Zone: 9-6
Chill Requirement: Likely, but no reliable information could be found
Plant Type: Large Tree
Leaf Type: Evergreen
Forest Garden Use: Canopy Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: Single species
Pollination: Monkey Puzzle Trees are Dioecious – have male and female plants. Male and female cone will form on the respective plant. Wind pollinated. Both are needed for fertilization.
Flowering: Summer – yes, I know that pine trees don’t technically have “flowers”, they have strobili, but this will suffice in the common vernacular.
Years to Begin Bearing: 15-40 years (plant it now!)
Years of Useful Life: Reported to live over 1,000 years!
A relatively young Monkey Puzzle Tree
A bit older specimen just starting to lose some of its lower branches
A mature tree with characteristicly absent lower branches.
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT
Size: 100-130 feet (30-40 meters) tall and 50-60 feet (15-18 meters) wide
Roots: Relatively shallow and fibrous, but not a lot of information available
Growth Rate: Slow
The rough, scaled bark of the Monkey Puzzle Tree
GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT
Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates light shade
pH: prefers neutral soil (6.1 - 7.0)
Special Considerations for Growing:
- Grows well in areas with abundant rainfall – an oceanic location with cool summers are ideal. However, it can grow in a variety of environments, just not in a location with a lot of pollution.
- For optimal nut crops, plant one male plant for every five-six female plants. However, it is not possible to discern male and female plants until flowering. Consider planting more than required and thin after flowering using the excess male plants for lumber.
- Plant this tree where the spiny leaves will not cause a nuisance.
From seed. Germination takes 30-60 days. Propagation from cuttings is possible, but not easy. Monkey Puzzle Trees have sensitive root systems, so getting the plant in place as soon as possible is a high priority.
Almost none. Pick up occasional branches as they are shed.