Thursday 5 August 2010

Why I live where I live

I live in my house because there is a Monkey Puzzle tree in the back garden. Fact. When the time came for us to move from where we used to live, I didn't want to, and was rather obstinate about it. After a day being dragged round houses that Mrs L had previously been to see by herself, we ended up at this one. She walked me straight through the house, out of the back door, and down to the bottom of the garden, where together we admired the Monkey Puzzle tree. I may even have stroked its branches.

We came back into the house, and I got shown each room. I don't expect I said much, a few grunts perhaps. In the car on the way back though, I very clearly expressed something along the lines of "You know, we could live there, in that house." "I kn-ow, that's why I took you there, dumb-ass!" replied Mrs L. And so we do, and I get to stroke the branches every day.

Another little-known fact is that the whilst an adult Monkey Puzzle tree might look spikey, in fact the branches are quite rubbery. It's still some way from being a tree you can hug, but they're not as sharp and pointy as you might expect. Young seedlings and juvenile plants on the other hand are not rubbery, they are as sharp and spikey as they look. Like many things, they mellow with age.

The biggest one is probably six years old, the middle one perhaps three years old. The teensy-weensy one on the left is one of last year's seeds. The first fork may develop later this year.

The Araucaria family is one of the most ancient on earth. The survive mainly as relict populations, living fossils. In common with ancient groups of plants, they are dioecious, the trees are either male or female. In Gymnosperms, like conifers and cycads, the females bear seed cones, and the males bear pollen cones.

The large browny cones at the top are mature and will disintegrate soon. The seeds are arranged in a whorl surrounding a central spike, which is left once the seeds have fallen. You can see one towards the bottom, on the right. Bottom left, small and bright green, is a new cone developing.

Our tree is a female, which makes me especially happy. In the wild, which is along the Andean ridge in central Chile and Argentina, they grow in dense stands, and are wind-pollinated. When I was in Argentina a few years ago, visiting one of these remant stands was one of the highlights of my visit. I drove twenty miles down an unpaved road due west towards the Chilean border to get to them. At a checkpoint I was stopped by a soldier with a gun who wanted to know where I was going. "Pehuen", I told him, the colloquial name for the tree, and he let me carry on, provided I promised I wouldn't go to Chile. The trees in these stands are truly ancient. As they age, the lower branches drop off, leading to the tall-stalked mushroom look you often see. I spent several hours just marvelling at the trees, and surreptitiously gathered and planted a few seeds. On the way back I scored a Des Murs's Wiretail. Win win.

Our tree is a mere baby still, the branches grow almost all the way to the ground. In the wild stands, the two sexes grow alongside each other, so the wind ensures high rates of pollination, and the seeds are then distributed by animals and birds. Here in Wanstead though, our tree is on her own. The nearest male tree that I am aware of is about 250m east-north-east of our tree, and this is not close enough. You can see I care.

The cones take a full year to develop, and each contains about 200 seeds. I've never counted how many cones we get each year, but it is probably between 20 and 30. The cones mature around now and disintegrate, the seeds falling to the ground where I sift through them.

For although the nearest male is some distance away, amazingly every year a few grains of pollen waft through the breeze and into one of the developing cones. And so amongst the shrivelled and twisted infertile seeds very occasionally there is a nice fat one. So far this year about half of the cones have disintegrated, and I have found six good seeds.

The four seeds in the top row are all bad. They range from being utterly dessicated and empty to having a bit of substance, but still soft. The four at the bottom are all good. Fat, and with no give when you squeeze them. You plant them pointy end down, with just the top ridge protruding.

Although this is only a miniscule pollination rate, it is enough. I collect and plant the good seeds every year, and thus have a potted forest in preparation. Several potted forests in fact. We will soon be overrun, but I can't throw out our own Monkey Puzzle's seeds can I? It would be like infanticide. So there you go, everything you ever wanted to know about Monkey Puzzles but were afraid to ask, lest someone actually told you. Don't say you never learn anything on this blog.

If you feel your life is lacking a Monkey Puzzle tree, get in touch!


  1. Now that's a healthy obsession and in a million years the Lethbridge seam of Jet stone. You'll need to watch out for the missus taking your saplings away which will probably mean she's found a new house!

  2. Strangely these trees make me think of the UK; I must have seen one at Kew, and maybe in some other botanical or ornamental gardens. Other than that, I think I have seen them in Hawaii. They are fascinating and I commend your dedication to yours. Quite miraculous that you are getting a few good seeds. (Here our winters are so brutal that it greatly limits gardening. I deeply envy those of you with the climates to grow more tropical species.)