The monkey puzzle tree - Araucaria araucana

The monkey puzzle tree - Araucaria araucana is just 1 of 18 species within the Araucaria genus, however it is by far the hardiest for growing outside in northern European gardens. It is an evergreen, coniferous tree native to central and southern Chile and western Argentina, and able to reach an impressive 60-70 ft in height. So that being said it is only suitable for large gardens or parks, despite often seen planted in the front gardens of suburbia!

The monkey puzzle tree is broadly columnar in shape, but with a broadly pyramidal or conical top while in its juvenile stage. As it matures this top will becomes increasingly domed. There is some variation in habit from trees that produce narrow columns with no low branches, to trees which do have branches that sweep low to the ground. The dark green leaves are closely overlapping and ridged with sharp edges and chips.

Araucaria araucana leaf
To begin with growth is very slow attaining no more than about 4 ft in 10 years. After this growth will speed up to about 12 inches a year.

Araucaria araucana is dioecious, meaning that male and female plants exists rather one plant which produces both male and female parts. Male trees produce terminal clusters of two to six catkins which surprisingly look like small bananas. These catkins will shed their pollen in June before turning dark brown in colour. The female trees produce globular cones, 4-7 inches long and 3-5 inches wide on the upper sides of some of the top branches. It will take 2 1/2 years for these to mature, at which point they will be covered with golden spikes and containing up to 200 seeds.

The monkey puzzle tree will happily grow in most soils and conditions, but you should avoid planting in damp, poorly drained soils. If you have light soils then they are best planted in October or early November. It is better to wait until March if you have heavier soils. While older plants may look far more attractive than younger specimens, they do not transplant as well so it is usually best to purchase seedlings of no more than 12 inches.

The common name 'monkey puzzle' derives from its early cultivation in England in the mid 19th century, a time when it was still considered a rarity. The owner of a young Araucaria araucana specimen at Pencarrow garden near Bodmin in Cornwall was showing it to a group of friends, when one of them declared that '...It would puzzle a monkey to climb that....' As there was no common name for Araucaria araucana at this time the 'monkey puzzler', then 'monkey puzzle' name stuck.

Main image credit - By Monica SP54 - Own work, Public Domain,

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