Sandy’s Garden ... The Monkey Puzzle

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I have been reading Ian Rankin’s ‘Saints of the Shadow Bible’.

It’s the 20th and, as far as I am aware, most recent of his novels featuring Inspector John Rebus. Around the middle of a typically complicated chain of events, one of the characters, the elderly Professor Norman Cuttle, responds to a remark about an incident some years earlier by saying, “It’s funny, usually I’m fine with the past – just don’t quiz me on what I had for dinner yesterday.”

I am certain that Ian Rankin is too young to be experiencing this phenomenon for himself and must have been relying on the reflections of others when he wrote that sentence. I, on the other hand, am old enough to know just how true that statement is; and I am old enough, too, to be aware of another of memory’s tricks … the sudden recollection of an incident or an experience dating back many years, something which has not been relevant for decades and suddenly comes to mind. I had an example of this recently on an excursion in Greece when our tour guide pointed out a cluster of araucaria trees, observing that these were not native to her country but had been imported, probably for their ornamental value. And suddenly I recalled a fellow-pupil at school whom I have not seen or heard of since the day we left more than sixty years ago, for Tom Scott’s parents had a wonderful garden with the only example of an araucaria which I had seen up to that point in my life. But I didn’t know then that it was, botanically, an araucaria, for I knew it as a monkey puzzle tree.

Araucaria is the generic name given to a family of trees of which the so-called ‘monkey puzzle’ is by far the best known member. Its proper botanical name is Araucaria araucana, after the Spanish name for the indigenous South American tribe of what we once called ‘Indians’ in whose lands the tree was first found by an exploring Spaniard. An English surgeon and plant collector by the name of Archibald Menzies, who was travelling on George Vancouver’s round-the-world voyage on board James Cook’s old ship HMS Discovery, was served the seeds of this conifer as dessert while dining with the governor of Chile. He saved a few of the seeds, planted them in a seed frame on the ship and was the proud owner of five healthy saplings by the time he returned to England. He donated these to the Royal Botanic Garden Kew, where the longest-lived survived for almost a century, dying in 1892.

The name ‘monkey puzzle’ given to the tree by someone who thought that monkeys would be unable to climb the spiky branches, although the height to which the tree grows in its native habitat … anything from 30 metres to 80 metres, or between 100 feet and 250 feet in old money … might also have presented a challenge. People, on the other hand, have tools which enable them to overcome challenges that defeat other members of the animal kingdom; and the Chilean locals used to cut trees for firewood and for building. However, the arrival of European exploiters brought large-scale logging as the wood of the monkey puzzle tree was found to be excellent for railway sleepers, pit props, ships’ masts and for paper pulp. Such was the devastation caused to the araucaria forests that the plant is now an endangered species and, despite the cutting down of wild trees being made an offence in 1990, forests are still being felled to create land suitable for grazing stock and for commercial plantations.

In the U.K., monkey puzzles were planted as ornamentals in parks and gardens during the nineteenth century. However, it is not suitable for today’s smaller gardens; and Araucaria araucana is now rare in Scotland. I wonder if the example I knew is still alive and well?