Very few conifers look more prehistoric than those in the genus Araucaria. Of the 20 species that occur in this genus, Araucaria araucana is the only one adapted to a cool climate with winter snow and frost; the others are dependent on subtropical to tropical climates. Native to Chile and Argentina, Araucaria araucana is of great historical and social importance in its native range.
It was introduced to Europe shortly after its discovery in the late-eighteenth century. Whilst sailing as a surgeon under Captain Vancouver, Archibald Menzies attended a banquet hosted by the Governor of Chile. Menzies pocketed some of the unusual seeds from the dining table, germinating them aboard ship on his return voyage to England, successfully raising five or six seedlings in 1795; thirteen years after the species had first been described to science by the Chilean botanist Juan Molina under the name Pinus araucana.
The seeds are edible and traditionally harvested by Mapuche Indians, particularly the montane tribe, the Pehuenche. The seeds can be eaten raw, boiled or toasted in the ashes of a fire; they are also made into a fermented drink known as chavid.
Evergreen, dioecious (rarely monecious) the monkey puzzle has a pyramidal shape when very young, but as it matures, the canopy takes on a rounded appearance. On the slopes of the Chilean Andes, it may reach a height of 50 metres and can live for up to 2,000 years. Proving to be winter hardy in most countries, it quickly became a popular tree for large gardens, avenues to country houses and parks. Favoured as an ornamental tree, Araucaria araucana is now cultivated throughout the temperate world with propagation generally by seed. Monkey puzzle seeds are known to be recalcitrant and should thus be sown fresh to achieve good germination.
Although readily available through the horticultural trade, this species is fully protected under Appendix I of CITES and its harvesting for timber has been prohibited since 1990. Before logging was outlawed, Araucaria araucana was one of the most desirable timbers in Chile, due to its durability and resistance to fungal decay, resulting in it being used for beams in buildings to veneers and plywood.
Fire is one of the most serious present-day threats throughout its distribution, and in combination with grazing and logging, this has led to significant habitat destruction, making it more difficult for the species to cope with repeated burning events.
Bean WJ 1976. Trees and shrubs hardy in the British Isles. Vol. 4. John Murray.
Farjon A 2008. A natural history of conifers. Timber Press.