No riddle: monkey puzzle tree is just ugly

I HAVE a neighbour with a large garden.

She dragged me into it the other day, although I had been comfortably ensconced in the house, because she wanted to show me the new tree she had planted since my last visit.

And there it was, right in the middle of a lawn. And there I was, in an embarrassing situation. She was expecting my admiration, but it was a monkey-puzzle tree, and I hate them. They have bark like the skin of an elderly elephant, leaves that look like the scales of a venomous reptile, and the shape of the tree is disturbingly extra-terrestrial. Some trees are more beautiful than others, but the monkey puzzle is the only one that is invariably ugly.

I could have hurt her feelings or I could have lied. To avoid both, I started to babble, spewing out trivial information about her new tree.

Ah yes, a monkey puzzle, also known as a Chile pine, which isn’t a good name because it’s not a pine and it’s native to Argentina. Dendrologists call it an araucaria, which is its botanical name. It’s also the name of the province in Chile where it was first discovered and the province, in turn, is named after a native American tribe.

Her eyes were beginning to glaze over and she was making small gestures with her hands, which I think indicated that we might return to the house and join the others. But I decided to make sure. The first European to describe the tree was a Spaniard, who had a long name I’ve forgotten. He was a government officer prospecting for ship-building timber. That was in 1780. But 15 years later, Archibald Menzies, the great Scottish tree collector, germinated seeds on a sea voyage back to Britain and presented five young trees to Kew Gardens.

Unfortunately, monkey-puzzle trees are quite easy to propagate from seed, provided you have a male and a female tree and a certain amount of time on your hands. In milder parts of Ireland, they’ll even self-seed.

So, by the time Queen Victoria ascended the throne, there were quite a lot of them about. The Victorians were prone to plant crazes and this became one of them. They were planted everywhere in Britain and Ireland, not only on big estates but in tiny suburban gardens. It was around this time that some proud owner, somewhere in England, coined the name ‘monkey puzzle’.

But this enthusiasm only happened in Britain and Ireland. In every other country in which the tree will grow, and that is quite a lot of countries, people immediately recognised that they were exceedingly ugly trees and refused to plant them.

The Irish climate bears some resemblance to that of the Andean plateaux, which are the monstrosity’s natural home. As a result, we have some of the finest specimens outside South America. If you want to avoid them, then don’t visit places like Powerscourt in Co Wicklow or Woodstock Gardens in Co Kilkenny.

Desmond Clarke visited Chile in 1964 and came across the trees in the wild. He wrote: “…it came as a shock to see those weird forms looming through the mist ...edging the plateau above the Laguna Malleco like sentinels in a lost world, I once again had the impression of something very remote and ancient… the araurcaria is always an impressive tree… In a garden it is like an elephant in a circus…”

They have one saving grace — beautifully-coloured and figured timber. If you have one, cut it down and turn it into furniture and salad bowls.

* dick.warner@examiner.ie

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