The monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) is a large evergreen tree with a distinctive shape – its often horizontal branches are covered in spirals of sharp, triangular leaves. When mature, trees produce large cones at the tips of the branches.
Also known as the Chile pine, the monkey puzzle tree is native to Chile and Argentina. The seeds, similar to large pine nuts, were long part of the staple diet of the indigenous people of the region.
The tree dates back 200 million years, which means it was around in the dinosaur (Mesozoic) Era. It’s thought that the sharp leaves protected the tree from being eaten by dinosaurs and other long-extinct animals.
The monkey puzzle tree was introduced to the UK at the end of the 18th Century and was a favourite with the Victorians. It’s thought it got its common name when a guest saw a tree at a country estate in Cornwall and remarked that it would be a ‘puzzler’ even for a monkey to climb.
While the monkey puzzle tree is a common sight in large gardens and parks in the UK (thanks to those Victorians) it’s now classed as an endangered species in its native habitat. Human interference in the form of heavy logging, forest fires and grazing from introduced animals has taken a heavy toll on the trees. It can take 40 years for the tree to produce seeds, so re-establishing them is a long-term challenge.
Conservation efforts in the UK have seen Chilean ‘forests’ of monkey puzzle trees planted at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew’s Wakehurst site in Sussex, the Eden Project in Cornwall and the Benmore Botanic Garden in Scotland. If you plant one in your garden, you will play your part in conserving a ‘living fossil’. The monkey puzzle tree is a slow grower, reaching 6m x 3m after 10 years. However, it ultimately reaches 25m in height and 10m wide, so this is only a tree for a large garden. It can live for over 1,000 years.
How to grow a monkey puzzle tree
Grow monkey puzzle in a sheltered spot in full sun or partial shade in fertile, moist but well drained soil. Water well after planting until established. No pruning or additional care is necessary.
Monkey puzzle tree: jump links
- Planting for a monkey puzzle tree
- Caring for a monkey puzzle tree
- Propagating a monkey puzzle tree
- Growing a monkey puzzle tree: problem-solving
- Buying a monkey puzzle tree
Where to grow a monkey puzzle tree
Grow in a sheltered spot in full sun or partial shade in fertile, moist but well drained soil. Give it plenty of space as ultimately it will reach 25m x 10m wide – this a tree that is only suitable for a large garden.
How to plant a monkey puzzle tree
- Stand the tree in water to ensure its roots are damp. Dig a square hole that’s wider than the pot your tree is in, and the same depth. Lightly fork the base and sides of the hole to to loosen it
- Stand the tree in the planting hole, checking that the top of the root ball is level with the soil surface
- Backfill with excavated soil around the rootball, then use your heel to firm the soil around it
- Water the tree thoroughly, then keep it well for at least the first year
- Mulch with a layer of bark to help retain moisture while the soil establishes
Read our detailed guide to planting trees.
Caring for a monkey puzzle tree
Monkey puzzle trees are very low maintenance – they do not need any regular feeding or pruning. Water young trees regularly in the first year after planting – after that they should get all the moisture they need from rainfall.
How to propagate a monkey puzzle tree
Monkey puzzle trees are usually ‘dioecious’ which means that the male and female cones grow on separate trees. The male cones are elongated or oval shaped, while the female cones are large and round. In time, these fall to the ground, usually in autumn, releasing their seeds. If you have been given permission to collect some, check that they are from a female tree (the seeds should be fat and plump as opposed to thin and flat). Sow straightaway, while they are fresh. If you have bought seeds online, they will have been kept in cold storage and also need sowing immediately.
Soak in water for up to 24 hours then sow, pointed tips facing down and the tops uncovered. Place in a propagator or greenhouse or on a sunny windowsill – they need a temperature of 20°C to for germination, which can take anything from a few weeks to a couple of months. Transplant the seedlings once they are large enough into bigger pots. Plant into their final position after two or three years.
Growing a monkey puzzle tree: problem solving
Monkey puzzle trees are generally problem free. They have a tendency to lose their lower branches as they age – this is normal.
They can be attacked by honey fungus.
Advice on buying a monkey puzzle tree
- Only buy a monkey puzzle tree if you have the space for it – it’s slow growing but can ultimately reach a height and spread of 25m x 10m
- Monkey puzzle trees are rarely seen at garden centres, so buy from a tree specialist or look online
- If you are buying seeds, buy from a reputable supplier