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Saturday, August 27, 2011

MONKEY PUZZLE TREE - A LIVING FOSSIL: INFORMATION AND USES OF MONKEY PUZZLE TREE


THE MONKEY PUZZLE TREE, ARAUCARIA ARAUCANA
The Monkey Puzzle tree is an evergreen, native to Southern Chile and South West Argentina where it was prized for its timber. However it is now a protected endangered species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Logging caused the destruction of this tree which has been called “a living fossil”. It has been around for 250 million years or so and is very distinctive. It has sharp needle like leaves which were described as being like “hypodermic syringes” by locals in West Cross, Swansea Wales UK who believed that a 150 year old tree should be felled as it was dangerous for children; probably a case of health and safety concerns gone mad.
  These trees can live for 1,200 years and are resilient to dangers from volcanoes, landslides, winds and wild fires in their native habitat. It is thought that they developed their sharp leaves in order to deter grazing dinosaurs, as they have been around since the Mesozoic Age. The leaves are scale-like and the trunk is scaly and ridged with diamond patterns, which make it resemble the outer hard casing of a pineapple. If you make an incision in the trunk a resin will freely exude which is used to heal wounds and ulcers by the indigenous people in its natural habitat.
  The Pehuenche people revere this tree and it is decorated during their two-day long harvest festival and stands in the altar while the potent prayers are said for the bounty of the earth to continue. The timber from the tree was used for carpentry and joinery and is a pale yellow which can be highly polished. Unscrupulous logging concerns almost eradicated this tree in its native habitat until the indigenous peoples made a stand to protect it.
  There are many of these trees planted in Britain and these were mainly planted during the Victorian era. It grows to amazing heights in its native habitat, reaching heights of 160 feet and having a spread of around 50 feet. The trunk can have a girth of around 1.5 metres, and it is sometimes associated with bad luck.
  The trees are believed to have found their way to Britain with Archibald Menzies a plant collector and naval surgeon who sailed with Captain George Vancouver on his circumnavigation of the globe between 1791 and 1795, in Captain James Cook’s former ship, the Discovery. The story goes that he had been invited to dinner by the then governor of Chile when he was served the pine nuts from this tree for dessert. Instead of eating them he took them back to his ship and planted them. He took 5 saplings back to Britain with him and these were supposed to have been the first planted in the UK. They taste a lot like pine nuts and look like chilgoza. The cones when they mature can contain 200 seeds, and these begin to grow when the tree is 25 years old. They take 2 or 3 years to ripen however.
  It is said that the tree got the name Monkey Puzzle tree when a visitor who went to view a tree planted by Sir Joseph Banks, the unofficial director of Kew Gardens, in the latter part of the 18th century and commented that it would “puzzle any monkey to climb.” In fact, of course, there were no monkeys in the tree’s native habitat. .
  I remember a Monkey puzzle tree in the grounds of a chapel in the small town where I grew up and was always fascinated by it. It was so huge to me and I could watch the birds look for nuts below the tree. They didn’t seem perturbed by the needles. It was a dark, shady tree and crows made their nests in it, which is why it might be associated with bad luck in some places, I assume. Incidentally, Araucaria was also the name of my favourite cryptic crossword puzzle setter in the UK's The Guardian newspaper
  It is a member of the Araucariaceae family and it is said that Whitby jet, prized by the Victorians for jewellery making was formed by a long extinct tree of this family in the same way as we believe amber was formed by a member of the same family.
  These trees are also called Chilean pines and other Latin synonyms for them are Araucaria imbriata and Pinus araucaria. You can’t miss them as they have a loose pyramid shape and really are “living fossils.” 

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