What is arguably one of the most instantly recognisable trees on the urban landscape, Araucaria araucana, with its stout stem, pyramidal or rounded head, mildly ascendant branches and spirally arranged, leathery leaves has an architecture few hardy trees can match. Young trees are remarkable in their symmetry of habit and are usually only of one sex and whether you have a male or female is not made apparent until it achieves a reasonable age. Female trees will produce large globular cones that tend to disintegrate on the tree as they ripen. Ultimately, they might achieve 30 metres in height with a spread of more than 14 metres.
It was first introduced into this country by Archibald Menzies (1754-1842) the Scottish surgeon, botanist and naturalist in 1795 when he was recruited to serve under George Vancouver (1757-1798) on his voyage of survey aboard HMS Discovery. Menzies pocketed some unusual nuts put on for desert whilst he and the ship’s officers were dining with the Governor of Chile in Valparaiso, he sowed them on board ship and this succeeded in bringing five live plants to England. One of these existed at Kew until 1892. The plant was reintroduced by William Lobb (1809-1864) in 1844 when he was working for the Exeter based nursery owner James Veitch. Araucaria araucana originates in Southern Chile and Southern Argentina where large stands of these trees can be seen in the landscape. The tree gets its botanical name from both the district of Southern Chile where it is found and the Indian tribe who live there. The International Union for Conservation of Nature consider this species to be ‘vulnerable’, that is to say prone to loss of populations due to removal for the creation of grazing land or the felling of trees for timber.
After its reintroduction, the Chile Pine or more familiarly, the Monkey Puzzle was extensively planted in Victorian times, sold by many distinguished nurseries of the day as something a bit more unusual and therefore is often now found as a mature specimen planted in parks and private gardens in England. It was given its common epithet after an owner in the 19th century said that its unusual branches would puzzle even a monkey to climb.
The seeds, which are the size of an almond, can be eaten where they have a slight taste of pine nut and the consistency a cashew. The wood is used in joinery and carpentry, it having a pale yellowish colour, good quality and polishes beautifully.
The young specimen photographed grows in Alleyn Road and is typical of the growth habit expected of the tree growing in this part of Britain. The other, larger specimen can be seen in Crystal Palace Road, in East Dulwich and this one retains many of its lower branches. Ordinarily, it prefers a good deep loam and usually does better on the west side of the country.
Last Spring the visit to Buckingham Palace Garden was oversubscribed and Mark Lane has offered to lead us personally again next year, in either April or May. Details and an application form will be available in the next issue of the Journal, published in March.
Jill Manuel, Chairman Trees Committee
The Centre for Wildlife Gardening is hosting a ‘Tree Day’ on Sunday 4th December 11am-4pm, 28 Marsden Road, SE 15 4EE. Come and enjoy a day of tree-themed family fun and discover the Centre for Wildlife Gardening to celebrate the splendour of our native species. There will be talks, gardening advice, wood arts & crafts, cakes and treats and exciting activities for children of all ages. Admission free.