Today’s endangered species comes from Chile. It’s called the Monkey Puzzle Tree. It’s also known as the Pehuén, monkey tail tree, Chilean pine and Pino Araucana. Comes from the Family Aracucariaceae (don’t ask me how to pronounce that one) which is species of evergreen conifers but it’s not actually the same as your average pine tree. The name came from the idea that it would be a real puzzle if a monkey tried to climb this tree but, fun fact, there are no monkeys in Chile anyway!
The monkey puzzle tree is a very ancient species. These trees were alive over 200 million years ago! That means they’ve been around since dinosaurs and scientists believe that these ancient animals used monkey puzzle trees as protection from other predators. Today they are located in the Chilean Coastal Range and Andes Mountains of Argentina because they thrive really well in volcanic soil.
The appearance of a monkey puzzle tree is quite fascinating or bizarre depending on the individual. They have a sort of pyramid shape as young saplings with spiky, stiff leaves that completely cover the branches. A lot of people like to say these trees look like reptiles because the leaves almost resemble plates of scales. When the tree is fully mature, it loses its lower branches and becomes very top heavy going from a pyramid shape to an umbrella shape. Monkey puzzle trees can grow to be 150 feet high and have a diameter of up to 7 feet.
A tree is either male or female. Male cones are known as pollen cones and female cones are known as seed cones. Pollination (the plant version of mating) occurs thanks to the wind transferring pollen to the seeds and that get naturally dispersed on the surrounding land. It takes 18 months for a cone to mature. It is not a good idea to stand under a monkey puzzle tree when it’s dropping cones because they are known to weigh up to 10 pounds! The seeds are referred to as piñones to the indigenous Pehuenche people of southern Chile and are one of their main food sources. They also use the trees as timber for boat structures, furniture and roofs; known as monkey puzzle wood.
Monkey puzzle trees were first introduced to Europe by Archibald Menzies. He was a British Navy surgeon and plant collector. In 1795, him and a few of his officers attended a dinner hosted by the governor of Chile and the dessert they were served had seeds on it from the monkey puzzle tree. Archibald saved some of the seeds and germinated them on his ship so by the time he got back to Britain, he had five monkey puzzle trees which were planted in the Royal Botanic Garden. This lead to the monkey puzzle tree becoming a huge phenomenon in the ornamental tree world and most seen today are juveniles.
While this tree is a hit in Europe and US, it’s sadly, declining in population in it’s natural habitat. Deforestation due to logging and burning to make room for more farm crops and cattle are the main reasons for population decline. Climate change is also affecting the trees because wildfires are becoming more and more intense and occurring with back to back frequency. Monkey puzzle trees are pretty resistant to fire considering they live close to volcanoes but sometimes the fires are just too hot to handle and they don’t stand a chance against fires deliberately set by humans. In 2014, Chile declared a national emergency because fires burned through acres of trees in 3 national parks. It sadly included small areas where this species is officially protected.
As far as conversation goes, most of the effort is targeting these forests as a whole versus one particular species. If you would like to learn more about the case study and what is being done, click here.