This photo displays the shoot apex of Araucaria araucana, or the monkey puzzle tree. Note the distinctively dense and triangular foliage!
For a visual overview of the monkey puzzle tree’s unique appearance, here’s the set of images from a Google search, featuring both wild and cultivated plants. These trees are evergreen, reaching up to 50m (164 ft.) in height. The species is typically dioecious, with male and female cones on different trees, but some monoecious individuals do occur (cones of both sexes on the same tree). A study on conifer leaf lifespans found the mean lifespan of monkey puzzle leaves to be 24 years. Their robust nature and low nitrogen content were associated with this longevity (the impact of leaf longevity on the fitness of the trees is also discussed in the article).
The species is confined to a narrow range within Chile and Argentina. Native populations of Araucaria araucana have been in constant decline over the past century due to anthropogenic factors such as fire, overgrazing, logging, and habitat fragmentation. Ten years ago, when Araucaria araucana first appeared on Botany Photo of the Day, it was classified by the IUCN Redlist as vulnerable (VU). The species has been reclassified under the more severe “endangered (EN)”, as numbers continue to decline. In recent decades, a number of policy changes and conservation efforts have been put instituted to reverse this trend. For example, logging this species in the wild became strictly prohibited in the late twentieth century.
I first became aware of this tree when hearing in a lecture about the peculiar way that it was first introduced into Western cultivation. In 1795, when botanist Archibald Menzies was served seeds of Araucaria araucana while dining in Chile with their governor, he hid some of these away. The seeds were then transported to England, where five resulting plants survived and grew. The reverse of the saying “earth to table”, monkey puzzle trees made their way from that dining table to become popular ornamentals on wealthy estates in the UK (and subsequently throughout the world). Keep an eye out for it growing in the suburbs of cities with temperate climates. I’ve seen quite a few here in Vancouver!
It took until the mid-nineteenth century for the monkey puzzle tree common name to be coined, when the lawyer Charles Austin remarked to Sir William Molesworth that climbing this tree would puzzle even a monkey. Of course, this alludes to the photographed sharp-pointed leaves covering the branches and trunk that would indeed be hard for anyone to negotiate in order to reach the seed cones near the top.
Known as pehuén in Spanish, Araucaria araucana is also the national tree of Chile. The etymology of the Latin name originates from the now-pejorative name given by Spanish colonizers to the group of indigenous people who inhabited the region of Araucanía in Chile. Collectively named the Mapuche in modern times, these peoples consider this species to be sacred, in part because of the abundant seeds used as a food (a carbohydrate staple during the winter) and the wood used for construction, fuel, and carvings. In a spiritual sense, the tree holds the altar centrepiece in harvest and fertility ceremonies for the Mapuche (via conifers.org).