Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A portal of monkey puzzles

Walking past the stately, century-old houses that fill the residential area of Capitol Hill in Seattle, these magnificent two monkey puzzle trees, Araucaria araucana, caught my eyes and I had to add this snapshot of them to my photo collection of period gardens in Seattle. Probably planted as small saplings soon after the large Arts & Crafts style house was built in 1909, their umbellate canopies now join gracefully together, forming a decorative even if quite prickly portal in front of the main entrance.
Monkey puzzles were one of the it-trees of the Victorian era, after they first had been discovered in Chile in the end of the 18th century. First in 1844 enough of viable seeds were obtained by plant collector William Lobb, who had been to South America to collect plants for the firm of Veitch.
Monkey puzzles are very hardy and long-lived; some specimens in the Chilean forests are well over thousand years old. They are also one of the oldest living species of plants, dating back to the days of the dinosaurs; their scaly, prickly needles seem to me very well suited to that era, and I think they always look a bit alien in residential gardens.
* A Tudor Revival style house in Seattle, with a young monkey puzzle tree on the front lawn. Period photo by Seattle photographer Asahel Curtis, early 20th century.
* *
During the second half of the 19th century, monkey puzzles became very trendy and many were planted on the grounds of Britain's great estates. As so many other garden trends from Europe, this one also followed the newcomers to the Seattle area. Planting monkey puzzles, Chilean conifers popular in English gardens, must have given their owners more status than using any of the handsome native conifers readily available in the area (which in turn were very much sought after in Europe - I guess the grass is always greener...).
Many photos of residential houses in Seattle taken in the late 19th and early 20th century show monkey puzzles proudly planted as solitaire specimens to adorn the front lawns of the houses. Some of them have survived and thrived in the temperate climate of Seattle, and are now, a century later, huge trees that have since long outgrown their allocated spaces.
Having two of them, like these magnificent ones flanking the main entrance of the house above, must still be extremely unusual, and I was thrilled to find such fine, living examples of garden history. Admittedly, they are now far too large and dwarf the house with their huge trunks, and they probably cast a deep shade and drop their extremely prickly needles everywhere. But I still hope that all inconveniences can be overlooked, and that the present and coming owners of this house see the historical value and charm of their huge monkey puzzles. Given that they often live for over thousand years, they can still delight several generations to come...
PS - the history of the name "monkey puzzle tree" is just as silly as the name itself: in the mid-1850s, some Englishmen who saw the tree for the first time, commented that climbing the tree would puzzle a monkey. Amazingly, the stupid name stuck, even if there are no monkeys neither in England nor in Chile where the tree comes from...


Laura said...

I love Monkey tree's. There are many large ones among the Heritage homes of Queen's park in New Westminister. I didn't know they were from the days of Dinosaurs though, very cool!

nilla|utanpunkt said...

Tror jag sett dylika på Kew. Visst är det väl för lustigt hur mycket engelsmännen kommer undan med - jag kommer att tänka på hur de (eller snarare drottningen) liksom hipp som happ ändrade längden på maraton, och sedan dess är det så. Ett imperium var de, helt klart.

Carol said...

Very Interesting post . . . I had never heard of such a tree. I was wondering about the name! Thanks for the note at the end. Seems it would deserve a more distinguished name! Now I want to learn more. ;>)

Tankar från Trädgårdsmästarn; Hillevi said...

Det är otroligt intressant att få denna historiska kunskap om ett så ovanligt inslag i trädgården. Undrar om historien ser likadan ut i Sverige och om vi har dylika stora träd på våra stora gods och herresäten. Och såå roligt att få veta varför det heter apträd (på svenska)... Fniss!
Förra veckan inlägg älskade jag verkligen. Hade aldrig hört talas om Pearl Fryar, så underbart att en så udda klipp-poet har fått ha en framskjuten plats i kulturen:-)

Ha det fint!

Sophia Callmer said...

Apträd är verkligen speciella träd, jag tycker det är lätt att förstå att de väckte uppseende när de upptäcktes.
På Christiansø utanför Bornholm finns flera stycken stora apträd i "Kommendantens have", väl värt ett besök om du kommer till Skåne. Pearl Fryar var spännande att läsa om! allt gott/Sophia