More Monkey Puzzling

Last week I  looked at the  discovery of the Monkey Puzzle tree by Europeans and at the very first specimens introduced to Britain by Archibald Menzies, and today I’m going to look at how it was introduced to British gardens on a grand scale.

Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere it doesn’t really have that much to do with William Lobb and the famous Veitch nursery of Exeter despite all their self-publicity.

I’ll also look at where it got its common name from –  especially since  there are no monkeys in Chile who might be puzzled by it.


Chile, the home of the Monkey Puzzle,  finally gained its independence from the Spanish Empire in 1818, and its new regime actively encouraged both immigration from, and strong trading links with, Europe. Britain was well placed to take advantage of this.  Lord Cochrane a Scot had led the Chilean Navy, and  a Royal Navy squadron was based at Valparaiso which apart from surveying the Pacific coast  also guarded the interests of the small but well organised network of British merchants established in the country.  As an earlier post about the intrepid Maria Graham showed, together they proved very effective at opening up Chile to plant hunters and getting new discoveries back to Britain. High on the list of sought-after plants was Araucaria araucana, the monkey puzzle.

The Royal Navy played a big part in this.   Joseph Banks had used his influence to make sure that wherever possible botanists were attached to all naval expeditions,  while amongst the fellows of the Horticultural Society of London which had been founded in 1804 were several leading  politicians who also stood to benefit from such an  arrangement.


When the King and Queen of Hawaii  both died of measles in London while on a state visit to George IV, HMS Blonde  was given the rather gruesome task of returning their bodies home.  The long  voyage to the Sandwich Islands, as Hawaii was then known,   was to call at ports in Brazil, Chile and the Galapagos.  The ship had a botanist aboard, together with a naturalist Andrew Bloxham, and a gardener, John Wilkinson.

The botanist  was James Macrae, a young  Scotsman who had previously worked at the St Vincent Botanic Garden. He had been  recruited as a plant collector, by  the Horticultural Society  to take a large parcel of European fruit trees, flower and vegetable seeds to Hawaii. He was to bring the boxes back full of local plants.  However Macrae was also given specific instructions that when the expedition stopped in Chile he was to “make observations on the practicability and expediency of sending a botanical collector to Chile. The plants of that country are known to have much merit both as regards beauty and utility and such of them as will stand the British climate are particularly desirable. You will especially enquire for, and send home, plants and seeds of the Chilean Araucaria...”   Macrae’s journal is now in the Lindley Library  and a transcription of the Hawaii section has recently been published.

The Blonde called at ports in Chile both on the way out and the way home and Macrae wrote in his diary  that he  acquired araucaria seed from a tree in the garden of a Dr Green in the southern city of Concepcion  who offered to send more seeds back to the Horticultural Society. He also met a Mr Cruikshanks who was a correspondent with William Jackson Hooker, then professor of botany at Glasgow University but later first director of Kew. Cruikshanks offered to put together boxes of seeds and plants to send back to London and    Hooker later noted that many araucaria “were raised… by Mr Murray at the Glasgow Botanic Garden, from seeds sent by Mr Cruikshanks from Chile.”  Others who seem to have put together parcels for British botanists included a Mr Bullard and  the British Consul-General, a Mr Nugent, who sent araucaria seeds to Aylmer Lambert, President of the Linnean Society.

Macrae also successfully germinated seedlings of monkey puzzle, and many other plants, packing them into boxes for the long sea voyage home. Although its very clear that many died  en route, at least a dozen must have made it alive because in October 1826 araucaria seedlings were given to the botanic Gardens in Cambridge, Oxford, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Liverpool, while others went to four  leading commercial nurserymen Loddigges in Hackney, Lee and  Kennedy in Hammersmith,  Ronalds of Brentford, and Jenkins of Marylebone. The Society planted one in its own gardens at Chiswick and sent specimens to three of their prominent members: the Duke of Bedford at Woburn,  Lord Grenville at Dropmore and Aylmer Lambert.

Araucaria seed was also distributed amongst the members of the Horticultural Society, although unfortunately we do not know how much there was and the names of everyone to whom it was given. Some was also given to Kew.  The Horticultural Society awarded a Silver Medal to Mr Nugent, the Consul-General, for “his services… particularly to Mr McRae, and especially for his successful exertions in sending alive to England plants of the Chilean Araucaria pine.”

But Macrae was not the only person on HMS Blonde to bring back araucaria seeds. One of the ships officers sent some back to his father who just happened to be Earl Talbot, the owner of Ingestre Hall in Staffordshire where they were germinated successfully in the greenhouse. Unfortunately his lordship was disappointed they didn’t flower so had them dumped outside.

So by the late 1820s  considerable quantities of seed had reached Britain and  araucaria were growing in many major gardens. Although they were initially still  comparatively rare as the 1830s progressed  they became more and more easily available.  This can be seen by their regular mentioning by Loudon in the Gardeners Magazine which showed  they even reached  moderately sized  gardens such as those at the  vicarages of Hendon and Bishopstoke. It wasn’t long before they became available even more widely and Loudon started recommending their use in cemeteries.

The Veitch nursery claimed the credit in their company history Hortus Veitchii because “for many years after Menzies’ introduction of A. imbricata the Conifer remained scarce till William Lobb sent a large supply of seed in 1844, and the tree became generally planted; to this consignment many of the oldest specimens in this country are traceable.”

In their encyclopaedic Manual of the Coniferae of 1881 they went even further declaring that Araucaria “continued to be very scarce in England; seed could not be obtained, and the small quantity that reached this country from time to time, failed to germinate. It was not till 1844 that Mr. William Lobb, while collecting in South America for our Exeter firm, succeeded in penetrating the Araucaria forests, and thence brought home the first large supply of seed received in England, and, from which, very many of the, fine specimens now growing in various parts of the country originated.”

I’m afraid this is simply not true and the reality is that Veitch were years behind a whole group of other commercial nurseries growing and selling Araucaria.

For example the trees at Ingestre that so disappointed Lord Talbot because they didn’t flower, were spotted by William Skirving who just happened to be a nurseryman with whom Talbot’s gardener did business.  He ended up buying them and  taking them back to his nursery ground in Liverpool where they were potted up  and priced at £5 a tree. When the first batch sold quickly Skirving upped the price to £10, with the last pair being sold for £50 to Louisa Lawrence, one of the first women to admitted as a Fellow of the Horticultural Society and  whose amazing garden I’ve written about before.

Clearly sensing a money-winner Skirving now sought out other seeds so that by July 1841 he  was able to exhibit  specimens of ‘Araucaria imbricata or the Chili Pine Tree’ at the Royal Agricultural Show. In addition to the one year old trees advertised in Sept 1841 he had larger potted stock  at 5s for a 2 year old plant, 10s6d for a 3 yr old one and 21s for a 4yr old specimen.   In other words Skirving had considerable numbers of trees which must have been germinated in 1837 at the latest, with new sowings each year after that.

[There’s more info about Skirving & his  other horticultural interests in  Cheshire Gardens Trust’s newsletter]

Nor was Skirving the only commercial grower able to offer monkey puzzles. By the time  Gardeners Chronicle  started publication in January 1841- about 15 months before Lobb had even reached the araucaria forests – it carried a series of adverts for seeds and plants of araucaria from  a number of other nurseries.   The earliest is from H. Youell of Woolwich “Florist to Prince Albert”   who offered “a few seeds of Araucaria imbricata at 48s per dozen”.    Youell had  until October 1839  been a partner, in another nursery in Great Yarmouth with William and Frederick Youell,   “Florists to Queen Adelaide”.

In August 1841 there was a newspaper report of a visit to the Yarmouth nursery that said they  “had been successful in raising several thousands of plants from seeds of that beautiful exotic the Araucaria Imbricata, or Sir Joseph Bank’s Pine, which attains to the height of 200 feet and bids fair to become in a few years a new and ornamental feature in the parks of our nobility.”

It then goes on to say “we understand that Messrs Youell are the only parties who have succeeded in rearing this choice production of nature.”  While that claim was clearly false the scale of their operation is impressive, even if initially the trees were not that cheap.

In Jan 1843 Gardener’s Magazine published a note from Youell’s saying that “Araucaria  imbricata in large numbers has stood within 500 or 600 yards of the sea, fully exposed to the cutting wind, for two years without the slightest injury.”  Youell’s claimed to have  “By far the largest stock the country of the above most noble Hardy Plant, which is in the course of planting by most of the Nobility”, and to have 3 year old trees for sale.

Veitch was beaten by plenty of others too, including at least three local Devon rivals. Apart from the report above Gardener’s Chronicle that year also carried adverts from William Rendle in Plymouth who also had London agents,  and  the  Exeter firm of  Lucombe & Pince.  Other nurseries  advertising included Peter Lawson of Edinburgh, William Masters of Canterbury and Milford Nursery in Surrey.  There were also auction house sales of surplus or bankrupt nursery stock of araucaria.

All this goes to suggest that huge quantities of seed must have been arriving in the country,  before William Lobb even set sail for South America. By the time the first consignment of seeds Lobb sent back reached Veitch in early 1842 there were at least 8 commercial nurseries selling seeds and small trees in  substantial quantities. Growing was so successful that prices crashed.  By October 1845 you could buy 6 year old monkey puzzles  at just 60s a dozen, while 2 yr old ones were just 2s a dozen. If that doesn’t constitute the general commercial introduction that was cheekily claimed by Veitch I’m not sure what would.

The other reason that Veitch should have known better is that they were responsible for  one of the  earliest large-scale plantings of Araucaria in  an impressive avenue of them  at Bicton, the seat of Lord Rolle at Exmouth in 1844.

Unfortunately although they did the work   Veitch had to use trees supplied by Loddiges of Hackney!



I suspect that there are two  reasons that Lobb and Veitch largely get the credit for the widespread  introduction of araucaria. The first is because their account of Lobb’s travails in collecting the seeds is a really good story of derring-do, which I’ll look at it another post one day. The other is because  Willaim Lobb’s father worked on the Pencarrow estate in Cornwall, the seat of the Molesworths.

Sir William Molesworth was Secretary of State for the Colonies in the 1840s and was a very keen gardener, and Pencarrow got a write-up in Gardener’s Chronicle in August 1842. “This place of late years has undergone extensive alterations,  and many thousands of pounds have been expended by the spirited proprietor in various decorations of the flower garden, shrubberies, drives etc.  It is now generally considered to be one of the finest places in the West of England.”

One of its main features was “one of the best specimens of rock works which we have seen” and in front of it stood  a “fine and healthy specimen of Araucaria imbricata about  5’6″ high…”

The Pencarrow garden book records the Araucaria being planted in 1834  – so it must have been quite small – even if the estate website claims that it had cost Molesworth 20 guineas from Knight and Perry’s Royal Exotic Nursery on the Kings’ Road, Chelsea, ironically later taken over by Veitch.      Pencarrow’s  head gardener at the end of the 19thc, Aubrey Bartlett, recounted the story of its planting in a letter to Gardeners Chronicle in 1899.  His employer Mary Ford, who had inherited Pencarrow told him that “there was a large and distinguished house party… And they assembled in solemn state to witness a ceremony of planting. Among them was Mr Charles Austin, the eminent lawyer, who after carelessly handling the plant, feeling the remarked, “it would be a puzzler for a monkey.””   This is the only source of the story and it’s certainly not mentioned in Austin’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography.

 Molesworth’s tree can’t have been very tall when it was planted if it was only 5ft 6″   8 years later, so hardly likely to scare off any monkeys foolhardy enough to want to climb it.   However its possible that Austin had seen others such as  the well-established ones at Kew or Dropmore for example. David Gedye suggest that perhaps it was grown from one of the 1826 Macrae consignment but had been grown in a pot by Joseph Knight which might explain its somewhat stunted growth. It was only 49ft tall when it came down in a storm in 1902.

So how did the puzzling story spread – the answer is very slowly indeed if the the Oxford English Dictionary is anything to go by.  It records the first use of “Monkey puzzle” in print is by Charles Dickens’s journal  Household Word in July 1857, over 20 years later in an article about Belgian Flower Growing. It focussed on a visit to the Ghent nursery of Louis van Houtte who also published a beautifully illustrated periodical Flore des Serres. [If you don’t know it its worth taking a look for the high quality lithographs] It explained that “Less rare Araucariasas A. imbricata, the monkey’s puzzle, of which we have remarkable specimens at Dropmore and Kew, are mostly raised from seeds out of imported cones. With numerous other vegetable tit-bits, V. H. is alimented from England.”

The sue of “Monkey puzzler” is even later – not until 1876. Neither term makes the gardening press until 1884 – fifty years after its first supposed have been used.

Incidentally although the leaves of araucaria are leathery and very sharp and difficult to handle take a look at the prickles on the trunk!  Surely they’d be what would stop a monkey if there were any in Chile.  David Gedye has a story, backed up with a photo of a man who climbed to the top of a monkey puzzle unaided which ends with “it isn’t advisable. It took a couple of weeks before he was free of all the spines he picked up on the way.”

It’s interesting to note that the name “:monkey puzzle” has been translated and entered other languages.  In France where the first specimens were planted in 1822 brought back it is said by a naval officer in his hat [!] it is known as desespoir des singes  or monkey’s despair/desperation/hopelessness depending on which dictionary you check. I can’t find the first French usage so it’s difficult to know if it’s simply derived from the Pencarrow story or if it arose separately.   It’s Aap puzzel in Dutch, Affenpuzzle in German,quebra-cabeça de macaco in Portuguese but there’s no similar nickname as far as I can see in Italian or Spanish.  So if anyone has early examples of usage of the phrase in another language let me know! Otherwise I’ll return to trees that puzzle monkeys at another point in the not too distant future….

For more information, other than word searching through The Gardener’s Magazine and Gardeners Chronicle [easy to do via Biodiversity Heritage Library] the best place is David Gedye’s book Araucaria:The Monkey Puzzle or a freely available  article he wrote in 2017  for the International Dendrology Society Yearbook:  “The Introduction of Araucaria araucana into the British Isles” 


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2 Responses to More Monkey Puzzling

  1. David Gedye says:

    Congratulations to whoever compiled the Monkey Puzzle blog and thank you for doing so. My book “Araucaria the Monkey Puzzle” is not quite but is nearly sold out. Sales have so far raised £3,000 which has already, or will be, donated to Foundacion Chilco, via the International Conifer Conservation Programme, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, for the foundations work in Chile on monkey puzzle conservation and education.

    David Gedye

    • Many thanks for your message David. I’m, delighted that Araucaria is selling well and hope that the blog sold a few more copies for you. It’s a great book about a fascinating subject, and I hope it helps restore the balance of fact and fiction in the story of the monkey puzzle. David

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