Dr Eoin Lettice: Cork's Monkey Puzzle tree is down but saplings and seeds may see it live on

The tree, felled by Storm Ellen, was a link to the city's past, writes Dr Eoin Lettice
Dr Eoin Lettice: Cork's Monkey Puzzle tree is down but saplings and seeds may see it live on
The roots of the Monkey Puzzle tree which fell overnight during Storm Ellen at Jacobs Island next to the South Link road, West boundPicture: Eddie O'Hare

Storm Ellen has seen many trees damaged and uprooted during its swift and violent travels over the southeast of the country, none more significant than William Crawford’s Monkey Puzzle tree in Cork.

Native to South America, Araucaria araucana is a conifer and currently endangered in the wild due to excessive logging.

Its iconic appearance, scale-like triangular leaves and intriguing common name make it an easy tree to identify in this part of the world. 

The common name, apparently, derives from an early admirer who commented: “It would puzzle a monkey to climb that”.

Located just off the N40 South Ring Road near Mahon Point, it has been a landmark for Cork people for generations, with many taking to social media in the last 24 hours to express regret at its demise.

It could be the last living connection to the once impressive Lakelands estate, the home to William H Crawford – businessman, plant collector and philanthropist in 19th century Cork. 

It was Crawford’s father (also William) who founded the Beamish and Crawford brewery in the city.

Crawford was an avid plant collector in a time when exotic plants and lavish gardens were a status symbol for the upper tier of Irish society. 

Lakelands was described as “a perfect arboretum…richly planted with rare shrubs and trees”.

Amongst the plants he collected were Himalayan and Andean species, magnolias, rhododendrons and cordylines. 

He even produced a hybrid Brownea species which was named in his honour- Brownea crawfordii.

Crawford donated large amounts of money (and plants) to Queen’s College Cork (now UCC) to expand its campus, botanic gardens, glasshouses and tree collection – much of which makes up the core of the current UCC arboretum.

As well as that, he is well known for his contribution to establishing the Crawford Art Gallery and School and building UCC’s Crawford observatory.

As I have a personal as well as a research interest in the tree, I visited the site early on Thursday morning to survey the damage.

From an initial inspection, the tree appears to have rotted badly at the base, weakening it to such an extent that the strong winds had little trouble in toppling it.

The Monkey Puzzle tree as it stood before Storm Ellen.
The Monkey Puzzle tree as it stood before Storm Ellen.

On a positive note, there is a young sapling already growing in close proximity to the mother plant.

This should be protected as a direct link to Crawford’s immense contribution to the civic, scientific and artistic life of the city.

I also managed to collect a small number of seeds from the site. 

While germination cannot be guaranteed, the expertise of plant scientists at UCC will be harnessed to try to maintain a living memorial to a family that contributed so much to the university and the city of Cork. 

As for the tree itself, the wood of the Monkey Puzzle is valued by woodturners and sculptors and could be salvaged to further commemorate a family and a tree that is remembered fondly in Cork.

Dr Eoin Lettice is a plant scientist at the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES) at University College Cork.


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