What is a Monkey Puzzle Tree? - Home Stratosphere

What is a Monkey Puzzle Tree?

Increase your knowledge of monkey puzzle trees, what they look like, what makes them unique, how they reproduce, what conditions do they thrive in, and where they usually grow.

This is a solitary monkey puzzle tree in a park.

Araucaria Araucana

There’s a good chance that you’ve seen a monkey puzzle tree and were marveled by its strange appearance. This evergreen conifer tree is the hardiest species of the genus araucaria, that both the Norfolk island pine and bunya tree are both members of as well.

Some people know the monkey puzzle tree as the monkey tail tree, the Chilean pine, the Pewen tree, or the Piñonero tree. This is the national tree of Chile and was first recorded by Europeans in the 1780s, though the tree has been known to the indigenous communities for ages.

The name of the genus araucaria is derived from the indigenous people of Andes, Chile, the Araucanians. This community used the monkey tree seed as the main resource. This name was elected by Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, a french botanist.

It is said that the common name, “monkey puzzle” comes from an occurrence between two gentlemen in Cornwall, Britain, in the 1850s. A man named Sir William Molesworth had a cultivated araucaria Araucana tree in his arboretum and was showing it to some friends. A barrister named Benthamist Charles Austin, made a remark, saying “it would puzzle a monkey to climb that!” and the name stuck.

The monkey puzzle tree has been around for a very long time. They are not very genetically different from tree species that were present in ancient prehistory, we’re talking about coexisting with dinosaurs! The monkey puzzle tree is sometimes referred to as a “living fossil”. Their life expectancy is an impressive 1000+ years.

If you’re interested in some other interesting and rare trees, check out all of the 101 Types of Trees that we listed in this great article! You can learn about eucalyptus trees, banyan trees, pine trees, hemlock trees, and many more!

Related: Wollemi Pine Tree | Kauri Tree 

What does Monkey Puzzle Trees Look Like?

Root System

Monkey puzzle trees will develop two types of root systems. They will possess both shallow, sparse, but widely spreading roots, as well as a very deep taproot.

The shallow roots don’t grow very close together, but they do tend to grow beyond the width of the crown of the tree. It is more common for tree roots to spread about as wide or less wide than their crown, making this an interesting feature of the monkey puzzle tree.

The deep taproot is to ensure that the tree is able to access moisture reserves deep in the soil, in the case that moisture is absent from the upper layers in certain climatic conditions.

Dimensions

Monkey puzzles are large trees, and will often grow to be between 30 and 40 meters in height. Their trunks are fairly wide around, and they will have a trunk diameter ranging between 1 and 1.5 meters.

Growth Pattern

This is a close look at a monkey puzzle tree with lovely green branches.

A young monkey puzzle tree show more of a conically shaped crown, or a wide-based pyramid. As the tree matures and develops, the crown of the tree will appear closer to an umbrella than a pyramid. By losing its lower branches, a mature tree will create this shape.

Bark

This is a close look at the bark of a monkey puzzle tree.

Monkey puzzle tree bark is light in color, with a rather smooth texture and circular ridges on a young tree. An older tree will reveal a strange pattern on the lower portion of its trunk through these ridges. As more and more ridges emerge as the tree grows, it begins to create the appearance of an elephant’s foot!

Foliage

This is a close look at the foliage of a monkey puzzle tree.

Possibly the strangest part of the monkey puzzle tree is its leaves. Monkey puzzle leaves are arranged in a spiral pattern along a branch — they are not attached to stems or twigs, but emerge from and cover the entire length of the branch.

This is a close look at a monkey puzzle tree's leaves.

These leaves are very thick and tough, almost like leather. They are around 4cm long and are a wide-based triangular shape. The tips and edges are very sharp. Some people have likened monkey puzzle leaves to the scales of a reptile. A leaf will also stay alive on a tree for up to 24 years!

How do Monkey Puzzle Trees Reproduce?

Cones

Since the monkey puzzle is a conifer tree, that means that it possesses cones instead of flowers, as deciduous trees do. This tree is dioecious, meaning that a female cone and a male cone will occur separate trees.

Seed cones (ovule producing – female characteristics) are large and globose in shape. They can reach up to 20cm in length, and a single seed cone can produce 200 seeds. They grow on the female tree.

Pollen cones (pollen-producing – male characteristics) are smaller and oblong in shape – kind of like a cucumber. They linger around 12cm in length and release pollen when they become mature. They grow on the male tree.

Seed cones are wind-pollinated. Once a seed cone has reached maturity after 18 months (usually occurring in autumn) the cone will dry out and disintegrate, effectively releasing seeds.

This is a close look at the female cones of a monkey puzzle tree.

Seeds

A monkey puzzle seed is 4cm long, and they are very similar in size, color, and shape, to a pine nut! They are not only eaten by small rodents – which are very important contributors to seed dispersal – they are harvested and eaten by humans as well. They are a delicious edible nut.

The long-haired grass mouse (abrothrix longipilis) is an integral contributor of seed dispersal for the monkey puzzle tree. These mice will properly bury seeds in locations that are the most favorable for successful germination. How these mice know where the hot spots are, we do not know.

Sexual Maturity

Monkey puzzle trees don’t become sexually mature until they reach ages between 30 and 40. For this reason, these trees are not a common choice for commercial orchard planting, as the waiting time for seed crops is far too long for a business to remain feasible.

Where do Monkey Puzzle Trees Grow?

A forest of monkey puzzle trees with a snowy mountain in the background.

The monkey puzzle tree is native South America. It originated in central and southern Chile, as well as western Argentina. They are found most commonly in elevations about 1000m above sea level, and in the lower slopes of the Andes mountains.

The monkey puzzle tree has been naturalized in many other native habitats since then. This hardy tree grows very successfully on the west coast of North America, certain pockets of the east coast of North America, in western and central Europe, as well as New Zealand and Australia. All of these locations are part of the USDA zone 7.

What are the Growing Conditions of Monkey Puzzle Trees?

This is a young monkey puzzle tree protected by a stone walling.

Soil

Monkey puzzle trees are very adaptive, and they can thrive in almost any type of soil as long as it is well-drained. However, they do prefer to exist in volcanically derived soils. They also prefer either neutral or alkaline soil.

Water Level

Monkey puzzles are moisture-loving, and they will only exist in regions that receive abundant rainfall. They are tolerant of salt spray but prefer freshwater.

Sun Exposure

The monkey puzzle tree is semi-shade tolerant, though it is most prosperous in full sun. This is a large part of the reason why they grow to be so tall. This is also a very common preference for evergreen trees.

Temperature

These trees are the most cold-hardy of the araucaria genus and can tolerate a cool climate that will only ever dip down as low as -4 degrees Fahrenheit.

How is Monkey Puzzle Trees Used?

Wood

These trees were once prized for their strong and straight trunks, though they quickly became endangered species and wood was no longer harvested.

Monkey puzzle wood is a light brown/red color, with a similar color to sapwood. The wood is straight-grained with a fine texture and natural luster. It is defined as softwood.

Food

Monkey puzzle nuts are eaten by animals and humans alike. They are an important source of food for many bird and mammal species.

Monkey puzzle trees don’t become sexually mature until they reach ages between 30 and 40. For this reason, these trees are not a common choice for commercial orchard planting, as the waiting time for seed crops is far too long for a business to remain feasible.

Ornamental

This is a close look at the foliage and cones of a monkey puzzle tree.

The monkey puzzle tree’s most popular use is as an ornamental plant in many a botanical garden, and parks. Their unusual reptilian scales and symmetrical appearance make them a very striking and unique contribution to any landscape.

FAQs

Are monkey puzzle tree roots deep?

Monkey puzzle trees will develop two types of root systems. They will possess both shallow, sparse, but widely spreading roots, as well as a very deep taproot.

The shallow roots don’t grow very close together, but they do tend to grow beyond the width of the crown of the tree. It is more common for tree roots to spread about as wide or less wide than their crown, making this an interesting feature of the monkey puzzle tree.

The deep taproot is to ensure that the tree is able to access moisture reserves deep in the soil, in the case that moisture is absent from the upper layers in certain climatic conditions.

Are monkey puzzles have edible seeds?

Monkey puzzle seeds are 4cm long, and are very similar in size, color, and shape, to a pine nut! They are not only eaten by small rodents – which are very important contributors to seed dispersal – they are harvested and eaten by humans as well.

Is monkey puzzle tree wood a hardwood?

These trees were once prized for their strong and straight trunks, though they quickly became endangered and wood was no longer harvested.

Monkey puzzle heartwood is a light brown/red color, with a similar color to sapwood. The wood is straight-grained with a fine texture and natural luster. It is defined as softwood.

Is a monkey puzzle tree deciduous or coniferous?

The Monkey puzzle is a coniferous evergreen tree, meaning that they possess cones and needle-like leaves, and do not shed their foliage seasonally.

Can monkey puzzle trees be pruned?

A monkey puzzle tree is a self-pruning tree, and as it ages it will naturally kill off its lower branches, or branches that are not performing very well. Pruning a tree too early can hinder its growth, and in the case of the monkey puzzle tree, it is best to simply let nature take its course.

Can you bonsai a monkey puzzle tree?

The monkey puzzle tree is a very popular choice for the art of bonsai, though it is imperative to ensure the tree seed is planted directly into a pot and that is where its root system will begin its development.

They would make for a very attractive and unique houseplant.

Does a monkey puzzle tree flower?

Monkey trees have reproductive characteristics in the form of cones rather than flowers. This is one of the main differences between a coniferous tree and a deciduous tree.

How fast do monkey puzzle trees grow?

Monkey puzzle trees are extremely slow-growing, and a tree that is only 3 inches tall can be over 5 years old. Once they have their first 12 inches of height established, they will slightly quicken their growth rate.

How tall do monkey puzzle trees get?

Monkey puzzles are large trees, and will often grow to be between 30 and 40 meters in height. Their trunks are fairly wide around, and they will have a trunk diameter ranging between 1 and 1.5 meters.

How long do monkey puzzle trees live?

The monkey puzzle tree has an average life expectancy of over 1000 years.

Where did the monkey puzzle tree originate?

The monkey puzzle tree is native to and originated in central and southern Chile, as well as western Argentina. They are found most commonly in elevations about 1000m above sea level, and in the lower slopes of the Andes mountains.

Who named the monkey puzzle tree?

The name of the genus araucaria is derived from the indigenous people of Andes, Chile, the Araucanians. This community used the monkey tree seed as the main resource for their survival. This name was elected by Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, a french botanist.

It is said that the common name, “monkey puzzle” comes from an occurrence between two gentlemen in Cornwall, Britain, in the 1850s. A man named Sir William Molesworth had a cultivated araucaria Araucana tree in his garden and was showing it to some friends. A barrister named Benthamist Charles Austin, made a remark, saying “it would puzzle a monkey to climb that!” and the name stuck.

Is the monkey puzzle a hardy tree?

The monkey puzzle is a cold-hardy tree for its botanical family, though not compared to a pine tree. For example, the monkey puzzle tree can tolerate temperatures as low as -4 degrees Fahrenheit, where certain species of pine trees can tolerate being dipped in dry ice.

Is the monkey puzzle tree related to the Norfolk Island Pine tree?

The Norfolk Island pine tree (araucaria heterophylla) is of the same genus as the monkey tree. The Norfolk island pine tree is not actually a pine, and it is native to a small island between New Caledonia and New Zealand. This tree can grow over double the height of the monkey puzzle tree.

Is the monkey puzzle tree related to the Bunya pine tree?

The bunya pine tree (araucaria bidwillii) is of the same genus as the monkey tree. They are native to Australia and New Zealand and are of a similar size and appearance.

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