Monkey puzzle trees live here. The first one I saw after I moved here took me by surprise. I say that because the first monkey puzzle I ever saw was in Florida, decades ago. We were at my late uncle’s house and he pointed out the strange tree with deadly sharp needles and strange seed pods that stood on the side of his house. We didn’t know what it was, but me being an amateur naturalist, I was determined to find out.
I took a sample home to DC and brought it to the National Arboretum to be identified. Soon after, I received a packet in the mail, naming the specimen Araucaria araucana, commonly known as the monkey puzzle tree. I learned that It’s an evergreen native to Chile.
But my uncle’s tree was not nearly as large and grand as the monkey puzzles I’ve seen here in Seattle. What are so many doing here in sight of Puget Sound? As I drive around the city, my eye easily spots them, standing very tall and lovely in front yards. The arrangement of the lance-like needles around the branches gives it a distinct profile, similar to the way a gingko has a unique look. It must have been trendy at one time, to plant these exotic trees in such a place far from their native land.
No squirrel, bird or monkey, for that matter, could possibly perch on a monkey puzzle branch. Not without getting a sharp poke in the butt. And surely no monkey puzzle owner dares go barefoot where the tree grows. It’s not native, provides no shelter or food for wildlife, and is one big prickly hazard. Its only value can be decorative, which is completely acceptable. Seattleites are fierce native plant advocates, but we are also passionate gardeners, susceptible to the sirens of purely decorative specimens.
The monkey puzzles have claimed their place in the land of evergreens. I wonder whether, in turn, Chileans are enjoying exotic Douglas, Grand or Noble firs in their yards?