Monkey Puzzle

Araucaria araucana

Other Names: Pehuén

Family: Araucariaceae

Natural Range: Southern Chile and western Argentina

IUCN Conservation Status

Endangered (EN)

The Monkey Puzzle is an evergreen species of conifer from the temperate rainforests of south central Chile and adjacent areas in Argentina.   Mature trees are covered by leathery, spiky leaves and may reach a height of 50m, living to over 1,000 years.  Like other conifers, it produces cones, and each of these releases between 120-200 seeds, called “piñones”.

The species is of great historical and social importance.  Piñones are edible and form an important food source for the indigenous Pehuenche people of central south of Chile.  Monkey puzzle wood has a high mechanical resistance and moderate resistance to fungal decay. It has been used for beams in buildings, bridges, piers, roofs, furniture, boat structures, veneers and plywood.

As a result of its natural beauty and striking appearance the species has been adopted as a flagship for a number of National Parks in Chile where it is also the National Tree.  Further afield it is highly valued as an ornamental plant by gardeners, particularly in Europe and North America, as well as being prevalent in botanic garden and arboreta collections worldwide. The Global Survey of Ex situ Conifer Collections (Shaw & Hird, 2014) reports that this species is present in 162 ex situ collections worldwide. Read the full report here.

The male cone of the Monkey Puzzle (credit: Dan Luscombe).

The male cone of the Monkey Puzzle (credit: Dan Luscombe).

In its native habitat, Monkey Puzzles are exposed to a disturbance regime characterized by recurrent volcanism and fire.  It establishes well under the partial shade of post-fire stands dominated by Nothofagus species, or may be the initial colonist on rocky sites that have been burned.

However fire, logging and grazing have led to rapid destruction of the Monkey Puzzle’s habitat.  Although logging of the species was banned in 1990 other pressures remain high.  During 2001-2002 thousands of hectares of native Araucaria forest were dramatically burnt in southern Chile.  The cause of the fires is unknown but some consider that private owners may have been involved, in protest of the 1990 logging ban.

Other threats to the species include the expansion of plantations with exotic trees and low levels of natural regeneration for the species. In 2013, the species was upgraded to Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Conservation actions required for the species include increased support for core protected areas such as Nahuelbuta National Park, the development of new protected areas in the Coastal Range and restoration for Andean and Coastal populations.

The Global Trees Campaign supported restoration of Monkey Puzzle forest and conducted educational programmes in two projects between 2003 and 2007. These projects are having a long-term impact.  Survey work conducted in 2013, ten years after 2000 Monkey Puzzles were planted in the wild, found that 90% of the seedlings had survived.

Selected references:

Donoso, C.,  Lara, A. and Alarcon, D. (2001). Araucaria araucana (Mol.) K.Koch, 1795. In: Enzyklopadie  der  Holzgewachse – 23. Erg.Lfg  3/01.Hoffman, A. (1991). Flora silvestre de Chile. Zona araucana. Segunda edicion. Edciones Fundacion Claudio Gay. Santiago. Chile. 258 p

Shaw, K. and Hird, A. (2014). Global Survey of Ex situ Conifer Collections. BGCI, Richmond, UK.

Did you know?

Monkey puzzle wood can be used to reconstruct past climatic conditions.  This is done by measuring growth rings which go back many hundreds of years.