Araucaria araucana, the monkey puzzle tree, is native to central and southern Chile, western Argentina, and southern Brazil. Araucaria araucana is the hardiest species in the conifer genus Araucaria. Because of the species’s great age, it is sometimes described as a living fossil.
In pre-1850 Britain, it was known as "Joseph Banks pine" or "Chile pine," though it is not a true pine. The origin of the name monkey puzzle tree derives from its early cultivation in Britain, when the species was still very rare and not widely known. The proud owner of a young specimen at Pencarrow’s garden near Bodmin in Cornwall was showing it to a group of friends, and one made the remark that "it would puzzle a monkey to climb that." As the species had no existing popular name, first “monkey-puzzler” and then “monkey puzzle tree” stuck. In France it’s known as désespoir des singes (monkeys' despair).
Araucaria araucana is the national tree of Chile. Its native habitat is the lower slopes of the Chilean and Argentinian south-central Andes, typically above 1,000 meters (3,300 ft.). Araucaria araucana is a popular garden tree, planted for the unusual effect of its thick, “reptilian” branches with a very symmetrical pattern.
Its seeds, similar to large pine nuts, are rich in starch and hence edible both raw and cooked; they are a dietary staple in Chile. The seed is soft like a cashew nut and resembles pine nuts in flavor (yum!). They are harvested in the autumn and, when kept in cool, dry conditions, will store for at least 9 months. The tree has some potential as a food crop in other areas in the future, thriving in climates with cool oceanic summers (e.g. western Scotland) where other nut crops do not grow well. This species is listed in the CITES Appendix I as an endangered species.
A resin obtained from incisions in the trunk is used in the treatment of ulcers and wounds. Very tolerant of maritime exposure, trees can be grown as part of a shelterbelt. Its pale yellowish wood is good quality and takes a beautiful polish, so is used for joinery and carpentry.
First found in Chile in the 1780s, it was named Pinus araucana by Juan Ignacio Molina in 1782. In 1789, Antoine Laurent de Jussieu erected a new genus called Araucaria based on the species, and in 1797 José Antonio Pavón published a new description of the species which he called Araucaria imbricata (an invalid name, as it did not use Molina's older species epithet). Finally, in 1873, after several other descriptions, Karl Koch published the combination Araucaria araucana, validating Molina's name in the genus.
The name araucana is derived from the native people who used the nuts (seeds) of the tree in Chile. A group of Araucanians living in the Andes, the Pehuenches, owe their name to their diet of Araucaria seeds: pehuen means “Araucaria,” and che means “people” in their Mapudungun language.
The monkey puzzle tree’s nearest relative is Araucaria angustifolia, a South American Araucaria that differs in the width of the leaves. The recently found Wollemi Pine, Wollemia, though discovered in southeast Australia, is another possible relative, though it could be related to the Norfolk Island Pine. Their common ancestry dates to a time when Australia, Antarctica, and South America were linked by land.