Araucaria araucana is a mysterious beacon of light from the time of the dinosaurs. Native to central and southern Chile and western Argentina, this evergreen tree easily grows over 130 ft (40 m) with trunks punctuated with strangely sharp leaves. Once the dominant species in mixed conifer forests, the trees prefer moist loamy soil or stabilised volcanic ash, are fire tolerant, and can survive between 2000 to 6000 ft (600 to 1800 m) elevations.
In Chile the tree is called the Pehuén and is sacred to the local Pehuenche people: its seeds are an ancient staple of their diet.
The triangular leaves are stiff, sharp, dark and glossy. With each spine completely covering and closely overlapping each other, their whorled effect is visually mesmerizing. While some see a majestic tree, others see something straight out of a sci-fi movie.
This Chilean tree could even puzzle the monkeys who could climb up but were unable to climb down.
You’ll find these giants growing quite happy on Canada’s west coast, in their native Chile and scattered gardens across England. Although they survive to -20C, they prefer the warm and wet weather of the Cretaceous Period (think global temperatures around 17C). But they are slow growers. Very slow. And can live for around 1000 years!
A. araucana is a living plant fossil. A tree that for generations has endured the comings and goings of ice ages, flooding, volcanic irruptions and the shifting and moving of tectonic plates. It has survived for over 200 million years, and is possibly the Earth’s oldest living tree species.
This living plant fossil appears to be identical in species found in the fossil records with only a handful of living relatives that are also living plant fossils! Certainly something to be shared at Royal Botanical Gardens.
Royal Botanical Gardens has three living Monkey Puzzle Trees, each about 5 years old, in their Battle of the Titans exhibit.
Most people miss the significance of having such an extraordinary plant in their midst: these plants are rare. Extremely rare. A living plant fossil gives us a glimpse into a forgotten past. A past where ecology, the environment, evolution and cladistic relationships still remain a puzzle.
Most of the Chilean populations are being illegally felled in and outside national park boundaries, and the once sprawling forests that covered our earth are diminishing. CITES and the IUCN both list this species as Vulnerable.
Monkey Puzzle Trees are classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List 2012 and listed on Appendix I of CITES
But where there’s a will there is a way and this tree is built for survival. So what makes the Monkey Puzzle Tree so unique and adapted for survival?
Monkey puzzle trees are fire-tolerant. In fact they need low levels of fire to maintain their populations. You can even find “tree islands” of these majestic trees left over survivors of lava flows from the surrounding Andean volcanoes. Each leaf can live for 10-15 years, and persist on the twigs and branches even after it dies and turns brown. And like most conifers, the Monkey Puzzle Tree produces cones. But remember, the Monkey Puzzle Tree is slow growing. With dioecious cones weighing almost 10 lbs each, they take almost three years for seeds to mature. But when they do the payoff is massive – millions of seeds travel through the air to scatter the Andean mountain sides.
The oldest living specimen has a trunk diameter over 7 feet round, and is over 800 years old!
But I got news for you, most gardeners will never live to see the new trees reach full maturity. Plant your Araucaria for future generations as it takes 40 years for these trees to bear cones. Consider every tree planted to be a time capsule for your great-grandchildren and an investment in natural history.