Gardens: A triffid from the Andean mountains

No tree looks as exotic as the monkey-puzzle. Everyone enjoys looking at them, but growing one is difficult.
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The Independent Culture
YOU DON'T have to be a gardener to know a monkey-puzzle tree when you see it. This extraordinary cone-bearing evergreen, sometimes to be seen taking up most of the front garden of a Victorian house, is instantly recognisable by its sharply pointed, oval, leathery leaves, its rounded head of downward-sweeping branches, and its naked trunk. So much has it captured our imagination since it was introduced at the end of the 18th century that myths have grown up around it, in particular that it is unlucky to talk while passing underneath one. I must confess to having formerly had mixed feelings about Araucaria araucana, as it is called botanically, since my husband has a habit of pinching me on the arm - what he calls a "monkey-puzzle nip" - if ever he catches sight of one before I do.

Recently I saw the famous monkey-puzzle avenue which leads up to Bicton College of Agriculture in Devon, however, and I am now a wholehearted admirer.

This majestic avenue, the first to be planted in the country, is 20 metres wide and stretches for 500 metres; it dates from 1843-4, when it was planted under the direction of James Veitch, of Veitch's, the famous Exeter nursery. (It was first introduced into this country as early as 1795, when the Scottish plant-hunter Archibald Menzies, when invited to a banquet given by the governor of Chile in Santiago, helped himself to some seed from a bowl, and germinated several seedlings on the voyage home).

The most fascinating feature, to my mind, of the Bicton trees, some of which are about 25 metres tall, is that the trunks, and the top of the roots which have in places heaved themselves above ground, are the colour and conformation of elephants' knees - dark grey, leathery and horizontally ridged. The trunks are a wonderful foil for the deep, deep green of the needles, densely packed in spirals on the branches. An avenue of such exotic trees looks quite in keeping, however, in a part of warm, moist Devon where palms and cordylines are commonplace. Additional trees were planted in 1977 from seed collected from trees in the avenue five years earlier, to act as replacements in the future when the original trees have had their day.

Araucaria araucana is the only truly hardy member of the genus, the other 17 (including the house plant Araucaria excelsa) all needing conservatory treatment in this country. The comparative hardiness of the monkey-puzzle tree is the result of its being a mountain plant in its native Chile and Argentina, growing at about 3,000 metres. Sadly it is now a rare plant there, confined mainly to a couple of national parks in the Andes. It has been a victim both of climate change, which means that it is more vulnerable to competition from other trees such as the "roble beech", Nothofagus obliqua, and also from collecting by local people, who eat the seeds and thereby limit its natural capacity to regenerate.

However, conservation programmes are under way, including one based at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, so the future may be a little brighter.

According to The RHS Plant Finder, the monkey-puzzle tree is "widely available" in this country, although I suspect that you would be lucky to come across it in the average garden centre.

It is not a tree for the small garden, as owners of Victorian terraced houses know all too well, but, if given ample room, it makes initially a handsome and stately shape, with branches sweeping to the ground. To get seed-bearing cones you need to plant male and female trees, and wait about 30 years. Although I wish the monkey-puzzle well, I doubt whether I shall plant one myself. I don't wish to be the victim of a daily "monkey- puzzle nip", and, I like to be able to talk in the garden.

Bicton College Garden and Arboretum is situated two miles north of Budleigh Salterton on the A376. Open from 10.30am to 4.30pm. Admission pounds 2, children free. Plants are available for sale from the Plant Centre in the walled garden