Extension News

The Monkey-Puzzle Tree: A Living Fossil


Reiman's Pick for the week of Feb. 7, 2005

By Megan Jorgensen
Reiman Gardens
Iowa State University

Described as beautiful and bizarre, the monkey-puzzle tree, Araucaria araucana, is considered the nearest relative to the trees of the Carboniferous period, which was 300 million years ago. Araucaria araucana's sharp reptilian armor-like leaves prompted its common name, monkey-puzzle, when a 19th century Englishman proclaimed that it would be quite a puzzle for a monkey to climb.

Also known as the Chilean pine, the monkey-puzzle tree is native to the Andes Mountains of Chile and Argentina. Archibald Menzies, a prolific plant collector, introduced the tree to England in 1795. The monkey-puzzle tree quickly became popular among Victorian era gardeners who planted it in many gardens and parks around the world.

The monkey-puzzle tree is a coniferous evergreen with evenly spaced, horizontal spreading branches that arranged in whorls around the trunk. Sharp, densely spaced, triangular leaves cover the branches. The leaves are 1-2 inches long and can remain alive on the branches for 10 to 15 years. With age, the tree loses its lower branches and develops an irregular shape with a flattened crown.

In its native habitat, this species can grow up to 100-feet tall and 30-feet wide. The fine-grained wood has been used for furniture, boats and paper pulp. Over-harvesting and wildfires led the Chilean government to declare the species a national monument in 1990.

In addition to the wood from the monkey-puzzle tree, the seeds are also a valuable resource. They were once a food staple for the Pehuenche Indians, whose name literally meant, "people of the monkey puzzle." Local inhabitants still eat the seeds as a source of carbohydrates.

Today, monkey-puzzle trees grow around the world as ornamentals. They prefer full-sun, moist well-drained soil and regular watering. The tree is hardy in USDA Zones 7-10 or indoors in colder climates.

View a specimen monkey puzzle tree inside in the Christina Reiman Butterfly Wing at Iowa State University's Reiman Gardens.

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