Dear Readers, the monkey puzzle tree is a true ‘living fossil’, and it is believed that the long necks of some dinosaurs may have evolved to reach up into these trees. There was originally a global distribution of these plants, and today they are found in South America (the monkey puzzle species comes from the Andes and is the Chilean National Plant), New Caledonia, Australia and New Guinea, implying that they existed when there were no separate continents, just the massive landmass of Gondwana land. Since then they have become rare due to deforestation and climate change, and some of the most magnificent specimens can be found in the estates and stately homes of the UK, where they have been grown since the 1850’s. As the tree can live for up to a thousand years there are many that will be around for a good while yet.
The tree in the photo grows in Fortis Green, an area between Muswell Hill and East Finchley. I love the way that it is snuggled around the house, and I wonder if the owners know that it can grow (eventually) to a 130 feet tall? The scaly, almost reptilian leaves can live for up to 24 years and eventually cover the entire stem. This one is also full of cones at the moment. Most trees either bear male or female cones, but the occasional tree will have both, or will change from one sex to another. This tree is a female, with the typical round cones that can hold up to 200 seeds. The male cones dangle and provide the pollen – the plant is wind-pollinated.
Those seeds are highly edible, and were an important food source for several indigenous tribes in South America, especially the Araucanians for whom the species is named. Because the cones drop to the ground, the seeds are easily harvested, although the tree doesn’t produce them until it is 30-40 years old.The seeds are known as piñones, and are used in many recipes: you can find piñones soup and croquets here, along with an interesting piece on the relationship between the Mapuche people and the monkey puzzle here.
If not eaten by people, the seeds are carried away by the long-haired grass mouse (Akodon longipilis) and buried – as is often the case, the mouse doesn’t remember where every cache is hidden, and so new trees soon grow up. Rodents and birds are often creators of forests.
The town of Whitby in Yorkshire was, from Roman times, a source of jet, much used in jewellery. Whitby jet dates back to Jurassic times (approximately 182 million years ago), and is the fossilised remains of a species very similar to the monkey puzzle tree. The material was probably collected from the beach at Whitby and transferred to York to be made into objects such as the jet cameo below. The Romans believed that the material had magical properties: Pliny the Elder suggest that:
“the kindling of jet drives off snakes and relieves suffocation of the uterus. Its fumes detect attempts to simulate a disabling illness or a state of virginity.”
For the Victorians it was a popular choice for mourning jewellery, with Queen Victoria wearing it after the death of Prince Albert.
Incidentally, ‘jet-black’ used to mean the blackest black possible, until modern technology came along and produced ‘Vantablack’, a pigment that absorbs 99.6% of all the light that falls on it, and which was promptly snapped up by the artist Anish Kapoor, who owns exclusive rights to the material. This caused absolute uproar in the artistic community – who wouldn’t want to use a pigment that has been described as ‘the blackest material in the universe, after a black hole’?
But as usual I digress.
For a non-native tree, the monkey puzzle has attracted a considerable amount of folklore, much of it conflicting. In the UK, children were told to be quiet on passing the tree if they didn’t want to grow a monkey’s tail (and of course some children took to yelling in order to acquire such an appendage). Another superstition was that the devil sat in the tree, and you need to sneak past to avoid attracting his attention. On the other hand, a Cambridgeshire belief has it that monkey puzzles were planted on the edge of graveyards because they were difficult for the devil to climb, and so he couldn’t gain a vantage point from which to watch burials.
And now to another Araucaria. This was the pen name of the Reverend John Graham who compiled The Guardian cryptic crossword for more than 50 years, and very convoluted it was too. I personally find the quick crossword is about my limit (and Graham also compiled this for many years), but I know lots of people who enjoy the challenge of the wordplay of the cryptic variety.
Graham was an idiosyncratic but much-loved crossword setter, and loved a themed crossword – his choices had varied from crosswords on the theme of anti-apartheid heroes to Dickens novels. When he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in December 2012, he set his whole crossword around the theme: when solved, it revealed that Araucaria had cancer of the oesophagus, which was treated with palliative care.
It seems to me that we underrate the pleasure derived from a good puzzle. Trying to solve the Quick Crossword in the Guardian has provided me with twenty minutes away from my trials and tribulations for more than twenty years. Bravo Reverend John Graham, for bringing so much happiness and head-scratching to crossword enthusiasts for half a century.
Photo One by By Daderot – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33388678
Photo Two by By Photographed by: York Museums Trust Staff – This file originated on the York Museums Trust Online Collection. YMT hosted a GLAMwiki partnership in 2013/14.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38964856