Monkey puzzle tree

In my posting on the N + N compound monkey bread, referring to a sweet breadstuff whose relationship to monkeys is not at all obvious, I noted that some have suggested a connection to the monkey puzzle tree, since the bread is sometimes called monkey puzzle bread: perhaps the connection involves a perceived similarity between the bread and the fruit of the tree. That sent me looking for information about the tree, which I became acquainted with in England many years ago. Though I don’t see much resemblance between the bread and the fruit of the tree, the tree is fascinating in its own right, and its name presents another origins problem — what does the tree have to do with monkeys and puzzles? — but one whose (again, not at all obvious) answer seems to be known. In any case, worth posting about.

On the plant, from Wikipedia:

Araucaria araucana (commonly called the monkey puzzle tree, monkey tail tree, Chilean pine, or pehuén) is an evergreen tree growing to 40 m (130 ft) tall with a 2-m (7-ft) trunk diameter. The tree is native to central and southern Chile and western Argentina. Araucaria araucana is the hardiest species in the conifer genus Araucaria. Because of the great age of this species, it is sometimes described as a living fossil.

Araucaria araucana is a popular garden tree, planted for its unusual effect of the thick, “reptilian” branches with a very symmetrical appearance [also covered with nasty spikes]. It prefers temperate climates with abundant rainfall

… The origin of the popular English language name ‘monkey puzzle’ derives from its early cultivation in Britain in about 1850, when the species was still very rare in gardens and not widely known. Sir William Molesworth, the proud owner of a young specimen at Pencarrow garden near Bodmin in Cornwall was showing it to a group of friends, one of them –- the noted barrister and Benthamist Charles Austin — remarked, “It would puzzle a monkey to climb that”. As the species had no existing popular name, first ‘monkey puzzler’, then ‘monkey puzzle’, stuck.

The tree:


And the fruits, containing cones, each with a great many edible seeds (commonly called “nuts”):


The trees have male pollen-cones and female seed-cones, usually on separate plants. Given the nasty spines on the branches (which pretty much protect the plant from animal depredation), it’s a good thing that when the seeds are ripe, they fall to the ground, where they can be gathered.

On the plant family (for which Araucaria is the type genus), from Wikipedia:

The Araucariaceae, commonly referred to as araucarians, are a very ancient family of coniferous trees. The group achieved its maximum diversity in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, when it was distributed almost worldwide. At the end of the Cretaceous, when the non-avian dinosaurs became extinct, so did most of the Araucariaceae in the Northern Hemisphere.

… The Araucariaceae contain three extant genera [Araucaria, Agathis, Wollemia] and about 41 species.

So: in modern times, a very small plant family.

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