Monkey-Puzzle Tree is a wild, "scary" evergreen with open splaying and spiraling branches. The tree can grow to 70 feet tall and 30 feet wide and forms a loose, see-through, pyramidal shape with a straight trunk. The tree is so open in habit you can actually look through it.
The leaves are dark green, stiff, with sharp needles that cover the limbs like armor. Monkey-Puzzletree makes an attractive, novelty specimen for large, open yards. It is seen in large numbers in California.
Scientific name: Araucaria araucana
Pronunciation: air-ah-KAIR-ee-uh air-ah-KAY-nuh
Common name(s): Monkey Puzzletree or Puzzle Tree
USDA hardiness zones: 7b through 10
Origin: Chile (national tree) and the Andes of South America.
Uses: garden specimen; indoor tree specimen
Availability: somewhat available, may have to go out of the region to find the tree.
Monkey Puzzle's Range:
There are no native monkey puzzle trees in the United States. The natural monkey puzzle tree is now found in two small areas in the Andes and on the coastal mountain range. It is a highly fire-adapted species, occurring in an area where fires have long been caused by volcanic activity and, since the early Holocene, by humans.
The tree can grow in North America along the coastal zone from coastal Virginia, down the Atlantic, west through Texas and up the Pacific coast to Washington.
Dr. Mike Dirr in Trees and Shrubs for Warm Climates
"The habit is pyramidal-oval in youth, later with a slender bole and ascending branches near the top....cones are about twice the size of hand-grenades and hurt even worse. Tolerates extremes of soil, except permanently moist."
How it was Named:
The origin name Monkey-puzzle derives from its early cultivation in Britain in about 1850. The tree was very popular in Victorian England. 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 popular name became, first 'monkey-puzzler', then 'monkey-puzzle'. Prior to 1850, it had been called Joseph Bank's Pine or Chile Pine in Britain even though it is not a pine.
The Monkey Puzzle needs to be isolated from other trees for best display of it's graceful and natural limb sweep. Maintain a central leader and do not top for best effect. Branches should be protected and only pruned if dead wood appears. Dead branches are hard to work on but will cause the tree to decline if not removed.
Monkey Puzzle in Europe:
Monkey-puzzle was introduced to England by Archibald Menzies in 1795. Menzies was a plant collector and naval surgeon on Captain George Vancouver's circumnavigation of the globe. Menzies was served the seeds of the conifer as a dessert while dining with the governor of Chile and later sowed them in a frame on the ship's quarter deck. Five healthy plants made it back to Great Britian and were the first plants to be planted.
Monkey puzzle tree does best where the summers are cool and humid, and they are popular landscape oddities in England.
Light: Full sun to partial shade.
Moisture: Likes a moist, but well drained soil and regular watering.
Propagation: By seeds or by tip cuttings from vertical shoots. Cuttings from lateral-growing shoots will develop into sprawling shrubs.
Monkey-puzzle prefers well drained, slightly acidic, volcanic soil but will tolerate almost any soil type provided drainage is good. It prefers temperate climates with abundant rainfall, tolerating temperatures down to about −20 °C. It is far and away the hardiest member of its genus, and the only one that will grow in mainland Britain, or in the United States away from the extreme south.
In Canada, Vancouver and Victoria have many fine specimens; it also grows on the Queen Charlotte Islands. It is tolerant of salt spray, but does not like exposure to pollution. It is a popular garden tree, planted for its unusual effect of the thick, 'reptilian' branches with a very symmetrical appearance.
The seeds are edible, similar to large pine nuts, and are extensively harvested in Chile. A group of six female trees with one male for pollination could yield several thousand seeds per year. Since the cones drop, harvesting is easy. The tree however does not yield seeds until it is around 30-40 years old, which discourages investment in planting orchards.