Archibald menzies and the monkey puzzle tree,
Araucaria araucana

Arizona Originals: Native Plants of Arizona
Exhibit January 24 to April 10, 2020

Fifteen artists from the Southwest Society of Botanical Artists (SWSBA) are represented in an exhibit of botanical art at the Natural History Institute in Prescott, Arizona. Participating in the exhibit are Tucson artists Chris Bondante, Melanie Campbell-Carter, Susan Hildreth, Margaret Pope, and Pauline Savage.

Included in the exhibit are several pen-and-ink scientific illustrations prepared for Legumes of Arizona: An Illustrated Flora and Reference, the eagerly awaited book about the family Fabaceae in Arizona (rumors are that the wait is nearly over).

NHI is at 126 N. Marina Street.
Gallery hours are 11:00 AM – 4:00 PM, Tuesday – Friday

In December’s Desert Breeze, the Scottish botanist Archibald Menzies (1754–1842) was noted as the first collector to have gathered specimens, in 1792, of the Douglas-fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii, during his five-year voyage on the HMS Discovery under the command of Captain George Vancouver. In 1795, on the ship's return voyage to England, Menzies collected, by chance, seeds of what would become a horticultural celebrity in Europe—Araucaria araucana, the remarkable monkey puzzle tree.

While docked in Valparaiso, Chile, officers of the Discovery were invited to Santiago to dine with the Spanish Viceroy. Some nuts unfamiliar to Menzies were served during the meal, and he took several back to the ship to plant. Seven seedlings survived the voyage, and Menzies gave one to his colleague Joseph Banks, with the remainder sent to Kew Gardens. King William took great delight in the trees at Kew, the largest of which lived until 1892. In 1844, commercial plant collectors returning from Chile brought large quantities of the tree’s seed to England where it became widely planted as an ornamental tree.

The top illustration here is of a large monkey puzzle tree in Dropmore Park, England that, in 1876, had grown to a height of 60’ in 45 years. An unusual and intricate branching structure, plus extremely sharp leaves, gave rise to the tree’s peculiar common name—a tree that would indeed be a puzzle for a monkey to climb.

Araucaria araucana is dioecious, with male trees bearing oblong pollen cones and female trees with 8” diameter globular cones. The bottom illustration presents details of the plant structures of the tree. A enlarged version of this illustration can be seen here with all of the plant structures labeled.

The large seed-bearing cones have been an important source of food for the indigenous tribes, as each cone produces 200-300 kernels, each twice the size of an almond, and numerous such cones grow on each branch. These nutritious cones are not produced until the tree is 30-40 years old. Trees can live beyond 1,000 years and grow to 130’ with a 5’ diameter trunk. Branches are covered in closely overlaid, scale-like foliage with very sharp edges and tips. Amazingly, each leaf can live for 24 years, a trait that greatly reduces the tree’s nutrient requirements.

The genus Araucaria includes 20 species, fourteen of which are endemic to New Caledonia.

Araucaria is one of three genera in the family Araucariaceae, the other two being Wollemia and Agathis, all of which date back to the Jurassic Period. Today these ancient trees occur only in the Southern hemisphere, but fossil records show that they previously covered both hemispheres.

The genus Wollemia has but a single species, Wollemia nobilis, the Wollemi pine, and it has been prominent in recent news covering Australia’s catastrophic wildfires. Its existence was known only from fossil records until 1994, when David Noble discovered a living grove of some 200 trees in the Blue Mountains of Wollemi National Park. It had survived in remote moist ravines where it would normally have been protected from fires occurring high above on the plateaus. But the recent fires are not normal. A carefully planned operation by firefighters and environmental officials limited tree fatalities to just two, although there is some canopy damage. It is thought that the Araucariaceae have evolved to resist fire, and unfortunately these are times that will test that theory.

More illustrations of the monkey puzzle tree can be seen here. — Cindy Hartwell

An abbreviated version of this article appeared in the February 2020 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.