Pacific Plant Promotions: Araucaria araucana

By: Chris Carmichael

Chris Carmichael is associate director of collections and horticulture at the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley. He currently…

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A view through the UC Botanical Garden’s grove of monkey puzzle trees (Araucaria araucana) to the Bay. Photograph by RGT

A view through the UC Botanical Garden’s grove of monkey puzzle trees (Araucaria araucana) to the Bay. Photograph by RGT

Monkey puzzle trees (Araucaria araucana), even when small, make a bold and somewhat weird statement in the landscape. With broad, spreading, rope-like branches, they look like few other plants. Related to the Norfolk Island pine (A. heterophylla) and the lesser-known bunya-bunya (A. bidwillii), from Queensland, monkey puzzles are native to lower elevations in the Andes of Chile and Argentina. All are members of the family Araucariaceae. The auraucariads of the Southern Hemisphere are members of an ancient lineage of conifers. Wayne Armstrong discussed the family and its role in West Coast gardens in the January 2010 issue of Pacific Horticulture. He noted that the 1994 discovery of the Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis), not far from Sydney, Australia, brought renewed attention to this family of fascinating conifers.

English naturalist Archibald Menzies brought the first monkey puzzle tree to Europe in the 1790s. While attributed to Menzies, the actual origin of the name “monkey puzzle” is not entirely clear, particularly since monkeys are not native to the natural range of Araucaria araucana. It is thought that the prickly, outwardly directed leaves would create a challenge for monkeys or any other climbing animals interested in accessing the cones and seeds of this tree. The trees are dioecious, with male, pollen-producing cones and female seed cones borne on separate individuals. The large seeds have historically been an important food source for the indigenous people of the Mapuche culture, where the tree is known as pehuén or piñon araucaria. The remaining groves of monkey puzzle trees are now protected, and the harvest of seeds is limited by law. Indeed, monkey puzzle is considered endangered and is protected by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

The University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley cares for a small grove of monkey puzzle trees in its South American area, a collection that features plants from the mediterranean-climate zone of Chile. These trees were started from seed collected in Chile in 1983, by the late Robert Ornduff, a UC professor of integrative biology and former director of the Botanical Garden. He collected the seed from plants growing at an elevation of 1,300 feet in Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta, in the Cordillera de la Costa (coastal mountains), near the town of Angol. His field notes indicate that the trees were part of a mixed forest of southern beech (Nothofagus spp.) and monkey puzzle growing on granitic soil. Ornduff noted that barberries (Berberis spp.) and a dwarf race of winter’s bark (Drimys winteri) grew in the shade of the forest. In reviewing his field notes for this article, I was delighted to see that Ornduff had, in an amusing turn of botanical humor, entered his collection of Araucaria araucana as “Puzzlea monqii.”

Female cones bulging at the branch tips of a monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana). Photograph by Paul Licht

Female cones bulging at the branch tips of a monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana). Photograph by Paul Licht

Monkey puzzle trees want full sun and are reported to tolerate a wide range of soils, as long as drainage is good. They are well suited for coastal locations. In his field notes, Ornduff observed that they were growing in an area with “much fog, wind, and cold.” Typically thought to prosper in cooler coastal areas from British Columbia through Northern California, they have grown quite well for us in Berkeley with supplemental warm-season irrigation. Our trees grow on a warm and windy, west/southwest facing slope, and the largest have reached about twenty-five feet tall in twenty-six years. They do not like the heat and dryness of southern California, though it would be interesting to know how far south they would succeed if planted directly on the coast. On a limited basis they are grown in other areas of the country, with at least one sizeable specimen growing in Merion, Pennsylvania, at the Barnes Foundation Arboretum. As with Norfolk Island pines, monkey puzzle trees can be grown in pots—for a while!

Reports suggest that monkey puzzle trees take up to forty years to produce cones. Plants in the UC Botanical Garden were started from seed in 1984; they began coning at just over twenty years of age. In 2010, the grove produced its first significant crop of seed. Monkey puzzle seed does not stay viable for long, so we planted many of the seeds and have produced a healthy crop of seedlings.

As part of the Pacific Plant Promotion program, the UC Botanical Garden offered seedlings, grown from this collection, to members of Pacific Horticulture, in July 2011.