The gloomy gymnosperm

For some time, I’ve been wondering about monkey puzzle trees and graveyards. And I have been prompted to write this after visiting this lovely tree yesterday afternoon.

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The latest monkey.  I’ll tell you where it is later.

Richard Fortey, in his book ‘Survivors: The animals and plants that time has left behind’ – writes about living relics from earlier times. The monkey puzzle tree being one such example, dating from somewhere in the Mesozoic Era. The Mesozoic Era is from 250 Million years ago to 65 Million years ago (the end of dinosaurs). Of the monkey puzzle tree, he writes:

“I always associate another Mesozoic survivor, the monkey puzzle tree Araucaria, with cemeteries, because a tall and melancholy example dominated a Victorian graveyard near my childhood home. I  only seemed to notice it on wet afternoons. Something about the pendulous branches or its sombre colours seemed appropriate to such a habitat, and I have struggled to rid myself of is deathly connotations ever since: Araucaria, the gloomy gymnosperm.”

The gloomy gymnosperm. What a wonderful alliteration!

But it is true that I have found monkeys in graveyards in several places – here in south Liverpool there are 13 in Allerton Cemetery; a lovely one in Flaybrick Hill Cemetery in Bidston; one in the graveyard of the church in Neston and Parkgate; and also in crematoria gardens – there is a baby tree at St Helens, and a young tree at Thornton. Why? Are they associated with death in some way? So I did some research.

From the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore:

The Araucaria araucana was introduced from Chile in the late 18th century, and has since gathered a few traditions, although these are not very widely reported: ‘It was an old Fenland belief that if a Monkey Puzzle tree was planted on the edge of a graveyard it would prove an obstacle to the Devil when he tried to hide in the branches to watch a burial. Many elderly Cambridgeshire people believe the tree is an unlucky one’ (Porter, 1969: 63). Some children have also believed that you must stay silent as you passed one, or bad luck would surely follow.

This webpage about tombstone art and symbols says:

Monkey Puzzle Tree: Sometimes found in Eastern England planted on the edge of graveyards, the tree’s sparse foliage was believed to deprive the Devil of a hiding place from whence he might observe funerals and steal the souls of the departed.

So, there is definitely a connection here with graveyards – and devils and soul-stealing. Interesting. The lovely tree above is in the churchyard of St Michael’s in Garston. I went there this afternoon to photograph it, and on leaving the churchyard met the vicar, Roland Harvey, who had come to lock the gate. I asked him if he knew anything of the tree’s history, as it is a relatively new tree planted in an ancient graveyard, most of the graves are from the late 1800s. But he has only been here 18 months and didn’t have anything to tell me about it. We had a lovely conversation and it reminded me of the research I’d done about graveyards. I also told him this was the 247th monkey on this blog. And it’s L71.

The gate to St Michael's churchyard on Banks Road.

The gate to St Michael’s churchyard on Banks Road.

A hidden gem.

A hidden gem.

Peaceful.

Peaceful.

L71.

L71.

L71 in centre of old graveyard, with new memorials of ashes scattering or interments.

L71 in centre of old graveyard, with new memorials of ashes scattering or interments.

With the old gasworks behind.

With the old gasworks behind.

L71, a lovely young female tree producing cones.

L71, a lovely young female tree producing cones.

The church of St Michael.

The church of St Michael.

And a little doggie statue gazes up forever at the memorial to its owner?

And a little doggie statue gazes up forever at the memorial to its owner?

A lovely tree and a hidden gem.

A lovely tree and a hidden gem.

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