A Gardening Journal
Must Have: Monkey Puzzle Tree
- Published: August 05 2015
At the heart of gardening is the question,"Will this plant live?" Then, "What about this one?" If the answer is "Yes!" often enough, you don't stop trying new plants—you try more unusual ones. With increasing confidence, your risks become at once more skillfully launched and more adventurous: Because you know more, you're ready for the next higher level of experiment, exploration, and excitement.
The more you let your inner explorer guide you, the more you discover the explorations of others. Like this monkey puzzle tree, reviving after what must have been a brutal Winter. No surprise there: It is growing near Buffalo, NY, where brutal Winters are the norm. The astonishment is not that this tree nearly died last Winter, which was a spectacularly rough one. Rather, it's that this tree must have been thriving for some years to reach this size, despite the annual awfulness of even normal Winters near Buffalo.
Green tips have emerged from the tree's upper branches. If this next Winter is only typically severe, not historically so, this monkey puzzle may rebound. Araucaria araucana is native to South America, and its habitat extends to the very southern tip of the continent—its Yukon, as it were—as well as the lower elevations of the Andes in Chile and Argentina. Monkey puzzles are hardy throughout much of Western Europe (if you visit the botanical garden in Warsaw, check theirs out) as well as on the east coast of North America where Winter temperatures don't fall more than a few degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
In the picture below is the youngster at the Polly Hill Arboretum on Martha's Vineyard, where Winter temperatures below zero are rare.
If you're alert to Garden Conservancy's open days, you can visit a "monkey" in this bravura garden in Little Compton, RI. And should you need a fix while on Staten Island, NY, check out this Araucaria at 208 Darington Avenue.
But mild-enough-for-monkey-puzzle Winters near Buffalo? Worse, the monkey puzzle I saw was, actually, over thirty miles north of Buffalo, in the too-charming Canadian town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. It's on the north shore of the isthmus connecting Ontario with New York. Lake Ontario is at the north and Lake Erie (and Buffalo) is at the south. These large bodies of water moderate the climate of abutting land and, so, the temperatures in Winter are no worse than here in extreme southern New England. We're both in Climate Zone 6b, with maximum lows of "just" minus five Fahrenheit.
True, the Niagara-on-the-Lake Araucaria was nearly slain by its Winter. But it had been planted out in the middle of a large property that was fully exposed to the strong winds off Lake Ontario. If I had subjected one to similarly cruel exposure here, it would probably look no better.
But what if the tree were sited with more consideration? How about shelter from north wind (often the coldest) and morning sun? (It can "burn" frozen foliage by thawing it out while the rest of the plant, let alone the soil, is still frozen and, so, can't replenish lost moisture.) Plus, openness to the sun from the south and west, which is the warmest and most helpful in achieving maximum Winter hardiness.
I have just the spot: near the west wall of the main house, with the projecting wing to its north. How could I not try to welcome this particular unicorn to my own garden? Yes, the tree will never grow to the size it might in South America...
...or even in Staten Island. Then again, those trees are growing free-range in mild-enough climates, where Araucaria is easy. My climate is borderline, so the hope for this species is sheer survival, regardless of slower growth and a smaller size overall.
But what if the tree's long, ropy, and flexible branches were skillfully trained into a plane of growth—an espalier—instead of being allowed to form the typical cone? And what if that plane of growth were parallel to and near that sheltering west wall? Surely, the chances of not just survival, but "thrival," would be even greater.
That west-wall espalier frame is already in place. I'll need to wear leather gloves when espaliering my "monkey." But, with luck, patience and (no doubt) an ever-increasing tolerance for being pricked by the foliage despite all precautions, I'll create what may well be the world's first-ever espaliered Araucaria araucana: a unicorn among unicorns.
Here's a look at my favorite monkey puzzle—so far—as well as how the tree's prickly habits relate to the giant sloths that roamed South America eons ago.
I'm looking forward to profiling this sui generis conifer after it's performing well in my own gardens.