Part of the reason I was in Scotland was to catch up with my wife who was taking part in a botanical conference there. As part of her work in the UK, we were given a short tour of Benmore Botanic Garden, which is near the Firth of Clyde and is part of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh‘s system of gardens. One of the prized features of Benmore is their Chilean Rainforest Glade, which the Garden undertook as a project in 1995. The following is my poor photograph of part of this area at Benmore.
This collection of Chilean flora includes all nine of the Chilean conifers, but the coolest one is that guy in the lower right hand corner, la araucaria or in English … the monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana).
Monkey puzzles naturally occur in the south-central regions of the Andes in Argentina and Chile, but they became very popular garden trees in Great Britain beginning in the 19th century. Apparently there are also some in the coastal areas of the US as well, but I had never even heard of the tree before going to Benmore.
Monkey puzzles are considered sacred by some Mapuche tribes in Chile. They are also sometimes used for wood, but are more important as a food resource. Their seeds are edible and similar to pine nuts. Amazingly, however, trees don’t yield seeds until they are around 30 or 40 years old! But that’s still adolescence for a monkey puzzle tree; they can survive for upwards of 1,000 years. But the best thing about a monkey puzzle tree, of course, is its name. It seems to come from 19th-century England when a young owner remarked that the tree’s odd shape and reptilian design would make a monkey puzzle how to climb it. It also leads to many British school children mimicking monkey sounds when touring the garden (an event I’ve witnessed first hand!).