In 1947 director Joseph L. Mankiewicz coupled Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney in a romantic-comedy The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Previously a novel written by Josephine Leslie penned under the pseudonym R. A. Dick and later a television series from 1968 to 1970, this romantic story has captivated audiences for nearly sixty years. Gardeners have referenced the movie to me on numerous occasions citing the rhetoric between Mrs. Muir (Gene Tierney) and Mr. Coombs (Robert Coote). “What a hideous tree. Quite! What kind of tree is it? I believe it’s called a Monkey Puzzle tree. Why? Because it defies the efforts of monkeys to climb it I presume. Ruins the view! I’ll have it chopped down.” Referenced by adults to me as unusual, spiny, odd, and exotic and by kids as simply “Cool”, this tree has sparked interest and attempts to plant it rival the efforts of those who go to great lengths to protect their precious fig trees in the winter.
Academically hardy to zone 7, there are specimens found in central and north Jersey where we are clearly a zone 6. Sited properly in alcoves or away from wind tunnels, I have seen this coniferous evergreen, related to the indoor houseplant Norfolk Island Pine; do well even without the help of a burlap wall for winter protection. Specifically, our garden center in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey had a single specimen for over 10 years. Situated within a northwest corner alcove of our building, it simply outgrew its surroundings and sadly was taken down. However, as a good friend and mentor of mine, Jock Demme of Iseli Nursery, often says, “Like it for as long as you can.” We did!!
My introduction to this tree was some 15 years ago on a buying trip in the Pacific Northwest. Bouncing from nursery to nursery, hand picking our nursery stock for the following year, I drove past an enormous specimen, some 70 feet tall, with rope-like arms covered with spiny, leathery, razor sharp, triangular, green leaves. The leaves are affixed for some 10-15 years before being replaced. These horizontal, spreading branches grow in whorls and are evenly spaced in tiers. Branching some 30 feet across, this imposing tree was a handsome lawn specimen with a trunk that looked like the foot of an elephant, complete with dark gray-brown, wrinkled bark. Majestic in its stature this Monkey Puzzle tree is visited every year I return.
Araucaria araucana (Monkey Puzzle) was introduced during the late 1700’s. Native to the volcanic slopes in the Andes Mountains of Chile and Argentina, it is often referred to as a Chilean Pine. Broadly pyramidal and sometimes oval are mature outlines to look forward to. The most cold hardy of some 18 species, Monkey Puzzle enjoys full sun to part shade and well drained soil. Tolerant of winds and salt spray I have seen a hedge of these towards the Oregon coast. Monkey puzzle is dioecious (has separate male and female trees). Female trees produce a 6” egg-shaped cone that takes 2-3 years to mature. Notable to mention, female trees have been measured consistently larger than their male counterparts. The cones can contain 80-200 large, edible seeds and are used for medicinal purposes a well as a food source for people. Likened to the taste of pine nuts, these edible seeds can be eaten raw or cooked and are high in starch. The resin, incidentally, has been used in the treatment for ulcers and open wounds. Finally, the genus is said to be named after the Arauco Indians whose territory was amongst the natural stands of the species.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Who’s to say that the deep wrinkles of a Chinese Shar Pei aren’t cute? Mollusks like clams and oysters, while unattractive, sure taste great. Your newborn baby covered in vernix caseosa will be the most beautiful sight you have ever seen. Dr. Michael Dirr, professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia, contributing writer this month for the Gardener News and plant demigod articulately writes, in his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, of the “unique and easily identifiable stiff, gaunt, rather scary growth habit that belongs in a horror movie.” An adequate description which he further elaborates, “makes a rather attractive plant where adapted.” We might add to it though…DEER PROOF!! For years I pondered the question of this tree’s common name. Monkey Puzzle … named for the fruit held high in the tree that is unobtainable to harvest by monkeys. At least not without some sort of body armor.