The discovery of the monkey puzzle

The history of how the monkey puzzle arrived in Britain is well documented. Although it had been described by Europeans in from the 1600s, the first seeds brought back and germinated in Britain were in 1795. Archibald Menzies was on Captain Cook’s Discovery expedition. In Chile, at a dinner where the Spanish Viceroy entertained officers of the expedition to dinner, Menzies collected some seeds served for dessert, which he didn’t recognise.  Later he sowed them in a frame on the quarter deck and returned to England with five healthy plants which he gave to Sir Joseph Banks, who planted two in his garden by the Thames; they became known as Joseph Banks Pine.

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Their botanic name is Araucaria araucara and they were known as ‘The Chilean Pine’. The story behind the name ‘monkey puzzle’ is believed to have come about around 1850 when Sir William Molesworth of Pencarrow House near Bodmin in Cornwall had purchased a specimen for the princely sum of 20 guineas.

He was showing it to a group of friends, and one made the remark “It would puzzle a monkey to climb that”; as the species had no existing popular name, first ‘monkey puzzler’, then ‘monkey puzzle’ stuck.

It is a particularly unusual name as there are no monkeys in Chile where the tree is native.

Araucaria seeds were still not widely available until James Veitch, of Veitch nurseries in Cornwall, sent plant collector William Lobb to South America in 1840. Lobb succeeded in collecting a large quantity of seed from which Veitch raised some thousands of plants then offered commercially.

It was from this that the Victorian fashion for these trees became popular.

Monkey puzzle trees are usually seen as specimen tree, planted singly. However there are avenues of trees – one an example is at Bicton agricultural college in Devon.  At the right time of year you can pick up plenty of seeds (if you get to them before the squirrels do) and try growing your own.  You won’t usually find seeds under a lone specimen, because even if it is a female, it probably won’t have been pollinated unless there’s a male nearby.

More detailed history of the discovery of the monkey puzzle can be found in this article: Riddle of how the monkey puzzle tree came to be a UK favourite, and also at the Devon Gardens Trust website.

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