Monkeying around: A tale of an Irish Monkey Puzzle Tree Avenue

Most of us will be familiar with the curiously shaped Monkey Puzzle tree with its long drooping limbs. Araucaria araucana or Monkey Puzzle tree is a species native to south western Argentina and south central Chile. Its distribution straddles a narrow band on both sides of the Andean range. Despite being categorised as a natural monument in Chile it is now classified as endangered within its native habitat by the IUCN red list of threatened species [1]. This is due to a number of factors such as the fact that it is poor at regeneration. However the major threat is from human intervention by deforestation. Clearances of land for agriculture by fire, logging and grazing inhibit and prevent natural succession.

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Fig 1: Paulina Zamora, photographer, Monkey Puzzle trees in Volcan Llaima, vista Sierra Nevada, Parque Nacional Conguillio. Chile, February 2007 , http://www.panoramio.com/photo/861526, last accessed 1/05/13

Whilst Araucaria araucana may now be a threatened species it was once the ‘must have’ accessory to a British garden in the nineteenth century. The provenance of the tree in Britain is credited to Sir Archibald Menzies in 1774. It is claimed that he happened upon some seeds whilst at a dinner hosted by the Chilean Governor [2].  The introduction of the monkey puzzle or Chilean pine to the British Empire began a fervour of planting in the Victorian era. It was planted in landed estates as well as in suburban garden settings. Its vernacular name is reputed to emanate from a guest of Sir William Molesworth of Pencarrow. Sir William is said to have paid out the sum of 20 guineas (£1,760 in today’s money) for his first Araucaria in 1834. His guest who touched the prickly leaves of the specimen quickly pulled his hand away, remarked that “It would puzzle a monkey” [3].

The thirst for the garden adornment of exotics did not diminish. By the mid nineteenth century commercial nurseries such Veitch’s nursery employed plant collectors to travel to South America to collect seeds. James Veitch commissioned Willaim Lobb in 1840 specifically with task of obtaining Araucaria seeds. Commercial interests in South American plants now became established and were more affordable than the North American varieties.

The demesnes and suburban villas of Ireland were also not immune to the craze for adornment of exotics. Many Irish gardeners were swept along with the popular wave of planting the distinctive Araucaria araucana. One living example is to be found on the Woodstock Demense located in Inistioge Co. Kilkenny. Here a dramatic avenue of monkey puzzles survive from their initial planting in 1845.

A contemporary visitor to the demesne, William Miller noted that the trees did not seem to be flourishing with little ‘new growth’ and became ‘rusted, which was owing to the wet, ingenial nature of the soil and subsoil’ [4]. Their fortune seemed to turn however when in 1860 a new head gardener, Charles McDonald undertook drainage works. He transplanted the trees temporarily and replanted them ‘afresh on mounds, the plants ranging from four to fourteen feet when re-planted’ [5]. Some sixty years later a photograph of the avenue shows them at a more mature stage with their dense canopy with a lawn axial ride.

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Fig 2 Left : Photograher not known, ‘Monkey Puzzle Walk’ 1920, From Woodstock Gardens & Arboretum, http://www.woodstock.ie/, last accessed 1/05/13 Fig 3 Right: McCauley Declan, Monkey Puzzle Walk, Woodstock Gardens and Arboretum , Source: http://www.askaboutireland.ie/, last accessed 1/05/14.

The Araucaria avenue formed part of the pleasure gardens leading from the main house with its formal parterres. The house, built in 1747 for Sir William Fownes by the architect Francis Bindon was substantially burnt down in 1922 by the ‘Black and Tans’. In contrast some 169 years from their initial planting the majority of monkey puzzle trees remain in good condition. Thus far 22 have been replanted and seeds from seed bearing specimens have been collected. Thus the succession of the  nineteenth century, South American Araucaria araucana can be maintained.

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Fig 4 (left): French,Robert,photographer, Woodstock Co. Kilkenny 4457.W.L., published between 1880-1900, The Lawrence Collection, National Library of Ireland. Fig 5 (right): Modern Ariel view of Monkey Puzzle Walk Woodstock Co. Kilkenny, Google Maps 2014, https://www.google.ie/maps/place/Woodstock, last accessed 1/05/2014.

The maintenance of such heritage trees is now more important to retain, as with age the propensity to succumb to wind throw from storms becomes an ever more present risk. In Ireland recent storms have claimed quite a number of historic trees but let’s hope their legacy can be ensured. This may be in the form of conservation, both in their natural habitat and in foreign regions such as Ireland. The natural heritage of Araucaria araucana and other long established trees in Ireland are worthy of a little a little helping hand from Homo sapiens.

Authored by: Rachael Byrne, PhD student, Geography, Trinity College Dublin

 

Notes:

  1. Aagesen, David L. “On the Northern Fringe of the South American Temperate Forest: The History and Conservation of the Monkey-Puzzle Tree.” Environmental History 3, no. 1 (1998): 64-85.
  2. Noble, William Charles. “Chilean Trees and Shrubs: A History of Introduction to the British Isles.” Garden History 37, no. 2 (2009): 154.
  3. Noble, William Charles. “Chilean Trees and Shrubs: A History of Introduction to the British Isles.” Garden History 37, no. 2 (2009): 153.
  4. “The Farmer’s Gazette, and Journal of Practical Horticulture.” Saturday 14th 1862.
  5. “The Farmer’s Gazette, and Journal of Practical Horticulture.” Saturday 14th 1862.
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