Marvellous Monkey Puzzle trees

Monkey Puzzle tree in Pinetum at Biddulph Grange Garden

Illicitly imported in the 18th Century and much loved by the Victorians Monkey Puzzle trees are scattered across the country, though sadly rare in their native lands.

‘You’re never more than a mile away from a Monkey Puzzle tree’ is my personal botanical equivalent of the ‘6ft from a rat’ for us urban dwellers. My travels around the Midlands are often punctuated by these trees - I pass 16 on my way to Wightwick Manor Garden near Wolverhampton. It was 17 but new owners of a local terrace house, or perhaps their surveyor, were obviously not as fond as I am.

South American import

The Monkey Puzzle tree, Araucaria araucana, is a familiar site in many front gardens, easily identified, once you have been introduced. Originally known as Chilean Pine, its Monkey Puzzle nickname was a Victorian addition – certainly hard for a monkey to climb, if it ever met any.

An evergreen tree dating back to Jurassic times it can grow to 50m and live for a thousand years. A native of Argentina and Chile, where it is known as Pehuén and is sacred to the local Pehuenche people, trees are either male or female and the pinecones can take more than two years to mature.

Packwood's puzzle
Monkey puzzle tree outside Packwood house, warwickshire
Packwood's puzzle

Journey to the UK

18th century plant collector, Archibald Menzies was commissioned by the Royal Botanic garden at Kew to collect plants in South America. The ship, the HMS Discovery, was named after Captain James Cook’s ship, another important person in our British plant hunting story. The story goes that whilst at dinner with the Governor of Chile Menzies kept a few seeds that were served as part of the meal. He managed to grow on five of the seeds and these were given to Joseph Banks at Kew in 1795. Their wider availability to the grand estates of the time we can attribute to nurseryman William Lobb at Veitch’s nurseries.

The leathery, spiny foliage of Bateman’s monkey-puzzles
The leathery, spiny foliage of Bateman’s monkey-puzzles
The leathery, spiny foliage of Bateman’s monkey-puzzles

Standing alone

Initially a notable garden tree for the landed gentry they became a centrepiece for Victorian bedding schemes - imagine a  metre high tree at the centre of a front garden bedding scheme in front of a Victorian terrace bay window. Move on a few years, the bedding scheme has long gone but the centre piece remains; lonely, dramatic and iconic urban garden trees.

Monkey Puzzle forest

The practice continues at Biddulph Grange Garden in Staffordshire. The four trees in the quarter beds of the Monkey Puzzle parterre are dug up and moved after 10 – 12 years. Their new home is in the woodland creating a rare site – a Monkey Puzzle forest.

" I do like Monkey Puzzle trees and I’ve seen a lot in my time, but for me, the collection at Biddulph Grange is the best in the country. It’s all about the setting – they’re hidden away and you’ve got no idea what’s coming – then all of a sudden you’re amongst a group of the strangest looking trees. James Bateman knew what he was doing when he put the best specimen on a mound…it dominates the area and you can’t help but admire it!"
- Paul Walton, Garden Manager Biddulph Grange Garden

A survival story

The British story of collecting plants, animals and artefacts sometimes warrants apologies but in this case we may be able to put right some of our past, over-enthusiastic collecting. These trees are one of the most endangered trees in the world, its popular, knot free timber resulted in extensive felling until it was declared a national monument in 1976 and their felling strictly prohibited. Unfortunately, in 2015 a forest fire destroyed over 70% of the remaining trees. Today, their remaining habitat is less than ¼ the area of London.

The International Conifer Conservation Project, based at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, is working on the conservation of these important living artefacts. So once again, it may be the Scots who play an important role in the story of this tree.

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