Tree of The Week: Monkey Puzzle

A tall evergreen conifer, native to the foothills of the Andes in Chile and Argentina. The Monkey Puzzle tree has an unusual reptilian appearance with glossy dark-green leaves (be careful they can be sharp), arranged spiralling around the branch so densely that they cover each branch completely. For me these branches look like dinosaur tales, so it isn’t surprising to know that these trees are an ancient species - their ancestors coexisted with the actual dinosaurs and formed large towering forests. Mature trees can reach over 150 feet in height and are thought to live for as long as 2,000 years.

Monkey puzzle species has been around for approx 200 million years, but they are now being threatened in their native Chile by wild fires from climate change and deforestation for agriculture. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, has classified the wild monkey puzzle tree population as endangered. It's illegal to cut down a wild monkey puzzle tree in its native habitat, but unfortunately this law is often disobeyed.

If you live in UK, head to Bicton Agricultural College, in Devon, where you can see a large collection of tall mature trees that are over 177 years old. The tree was very popular in Victorian England and legend has it that an owner of a young tree specimen in Cornwall was showing it to a group of friends, and one made the remark, "it would puzzle a monkey to climb that”.

The tree grows very well in the UK, so much so that efforts to keep the species growing in the wild are underway in Scotland.

“In the Chilean wild, the monkey puzzle is now endangered through the destruction of its habitat for agriculture, despite the whole species having been delcared a protected National Monument. The real puzzle now is how to conserve a tree that outlasted the dinosaurs but must compete for space with mankind.” Jonathan Drori from Around the World in 80 Trees.