To Puzzle a Monkey

The Monkey Puzzle at no. 30, Southwick Street, Paddington, is a public house named in honour of a plant which was brought from South America to Britain in the late eighteenth century. The monkey puzzle or Chile pine (Araucaria araucana) is an evergreen conifer native to Argentina and Chile. It was discovered around 1780 by a Spanish explorer and introduced to England in 1795 by Archibald Menzies, a naval surgeon and botanical collector. Having finished his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh, he entered the Navy as an assistant surgeon on board the Nonsuch under command of Captain William Truscott. During the War of Independence he was present at the Battle of the Saintes (or to the French, La Bataille de la Dominique) on 12 April 1782 in which Admiral George Rodney beat a fleet under command of the Comte de Grasse forcing the French and Spanish to abandon a planned invasion of Jamaica.

On the declaration of peace Menzies was stationed at Halifax, from where he corresponded with Joseph Banks and sent him seeds. In 1790 he was elected Fellow of the Linnaean Society, in whose Transactions for 1791 and 1798 he published reports of his natural historical findings. In the same year he was chosen as naturalist and surgeon on the Discovery, captained by George Vancouver. Members of the party were to explore and chart the coasts of Northwest America. They visited the Cape, King George’s Sound, New Zealand, Tahiti, and the Sandwich and Galápagos Islands as well. On his return in October 1795, he brought back a rich variety of plants, besides other natural history objects. Soon after, he retired from the Navy. His herbarium of grasses, sedges, and cryptogams was bequeathed to the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. In 1886 other specimens were acquired by the British Museum. Menzies is commemorated in the names of several of the plants he collected.

During his journey, Menzies was served the seeds of the conifer as a dessert (they are full of nutrients) while dining with the Governor of Chile. He later sowed some seeds in a frame on the quarter deck, returning to England with five healthy plants. One of these could be seen at London’s Kew Gardens until it died in 1892. First found in Chile in the 1780s, the tree was named Pinus araucana by Molina in 1782. Juan Ignacio Molina was a Chilean Jesuit priest and naturalist. Forced to leave his native country in 1768 when the Jesuits were expelled from Chile, he settled in the Italian university city of Bologna where he was appointed Professor of Natural Sciences. In 1782 he wrote Saggio sulla storia naturale del Chile, the first account of the natural history of that country, in which he scientifically described many species for the first time. The Latin name of the tree is derived from Arauco, the name of the province where it was first found.

The origin of the popular English name ‘monkey-puzzle’ derives from its early cultivation in Britain in about 1850, when the species was still rare and largely unknown. The owner of a young specimen at Pencarrow Garden near Bodmin, Cornwall, was showing it to a group of friends. The edible seeds grow high up the tree which made one of the visitors of the party observe that it ‘would puzzle a monkey to climb that’. As the species had no popular name as yet, first ‘monkey-puzzler’, and later ‘monkey-puzzle’ stuck. Since the leaves of the tree are razor-sharp, a monkey would be far too clever to make an attempt climbing it. In Dutch, the tree has been given a number of names including ‘apetreiter’ or ‘apenschrik’ (a tree that either teases or frightens monkeys). In France the araucaria is known as ‘désespoir des singes’, meaning monkey’s despair. However, as monkeys are not found in the native range of the species, this desperation seems somewhat melodramatic.