The Monkey Puzzle Parterre at Biddulph Grange

At the National Trust’s Biddulph Grange garden in England they have a little terraced gardens in the section called ‘Italy’ which has four small monkey puzzle trees in a little box-edged parterre centred on a stone vase (Figs 1–3). This is called the Araucaria Parterre after the botanical name of the plant (Araucaria araucana).

It is one of the most characteristic Victoria specimen trees, identifiably Victorian in that cultivation in Britain was begun only in the 1840s, but out of favour since.  The reaction set in quickly: Thomas Mawson as early as 1900 wrote that ‘Araucaria imbricata, or monkey-puzzler, is a variety most unsuitable for garden planting; its proper place is in an arboricultural museum, or piece of ground devoted to freaks of nature.’ (Thomas Mawson, The Art and Craft of Garden Making, 2008 facsimile reprint of (I think, 1900 edition), p. 133.)

It is indigeneous to Chile, was first noticed by Europeans in the 1780s, and was brought to the notice of the British by Archibald Menzies, the surgeon on the Discovery, Captain Cook’s former ship, then circumnavigating the globe under Captain George Vancouver. He was offered the seeds at dessert at a dinner with the Governor of Chile, and pocketed some. He raised five seedlings on shipboard,on his return giving one of them to Sir Joseph Banks  who planted it at Kew Gardens where it lived for 100 years. (The name araucaria araucana derives from the Conquistador name of the native Chileans (actually Maupeche) who used to eat the nuts.) They were properly introduced into Britain only after 1842, when William Lobb, who worked for Veitch nurseries in Cornwall, was send to Chile to collect the seeds. The name ‘monkey puzzle’ was coined by Charles Austin who, when shown a specimen in Cornwall in about 1850, remarked that ‘It would puzzle a monkey to climb that’. The Australian Bunya pine is a close relative, evolving a little differently after Gonwanaland split up. Monkey puzzles are endangered in Chile after bushfires destroyed much of the remaining forest.

The Araucaria Parterre at Biddulph Grange was one of the first parts of the garden created by the botanical enthusiast James Bateman after he bought the property in 1840, so he was an early adopter. They grow to very big trees, and so when they got too big he would transplant them to his arboretum, a practice that is continued by the National Trust.

The reason why I find this story so fascinating is that not only does Villa Castagna have a large monkey puzzle tree, probably somewhere between 130 and 160 years old, but Montacute has an ‘Araucaria Parterre’. This is the Parterre à l’Angloise, which has monkey puzzles planted separately on either side (Fig. 4). I had not heard of  the Biddulph Grange parterre when these were planted, but it is nice to have an unusual garden idea validated in this way. The two trees are seedlings of the big one. They were already planted there before the parterre was made, and the left-hand one was incorporated into the design, and the right hand one was moved to match.

It appeared to me to be a rather radical idea to use monkey puzzles in this way, both because they are rather spiky and because eventually grow large. Biddulph Grange has validated this ‘arboricultural insanity’,[1] as well as showing how to resolve the size problem. Fortunately they are very slow growing, so it will be someone else’s problem to transplant them into an arboretum when the time comes!

These seedlings were self-sown from the big monkey puzzle in a poorly maintained bed under the big tree. (Monkey puzzles do not produce seeds until they are 30 to 40 years old.) There were four; the other two were given away. Another seedling formed later is growing in a pot (Fig. 5). Monkey puzzle seedlings are tiny furry things, and the two in the parterre have taken good ten or fifteen years to grown to their present size. (The left hand tree developed a double trunk, one of which I cut off when the parterre was made; it now matches the other perfectly and you would not know it.)

The big monkey puzzle is basically female, but some years ago a man writing a book on monkey puzzles came around to look at it, and suggested that it might have been bisexual, and he handed me a male flower. But it is possible that this was brought here by a bird, as there are other monkey puzzle trees in the town.

Incidentally, the young monkey puzzle trees in the Wombat Hill Botanical Gardens are also children of the big monkey puzzle. When he retired a few years ago the curator told me that when he started there in 1983 (there was no curator before that) he came and took seeds from our tree to grow these. He assumed that someone else owned the property then, and I generously did not accuse him of trespassing! These trees are therefore now 34 years old, but they are still not very big – about 5 metres high I guess and about 150 mm in diameter (Fig. 6).

Monkey puzzles are said (on little apparent evidence) to live as long as 1000 years.[2] It likes ‘temperate climates with abundant rainfall’, which makes it marginal for Daylesford, and our tree suffered badly in the drought, dying back extensively on the south side.

I now collect picture of monkey puzzle trees on my travels. Biddulph Grange has many mature examples. These have few branches on the trunk and quite rounded canopies (Figs 7, 8). This growth habit is similar to Roman pines in the Villa Doria-Pamphili, where the lower branches are pruned off, so possibly the same has been done here. Some young specimens have luxuriant spreading branches lower down (Fig. 9). Ours show no such tendencies.

There is a good young specimens at Tyntesfield, also an important Victorian garden (Figs 10–12).

Daylesford once had an important bunya pine outside the Uniting Church. In a storm on 1 March 2015 it simply snapped in two (Figs 13–15). This could only have happened if there was a violent twisting motion, like a tornado. Our monkey puzzle further up the hill was unaffected, although a street tree not far away was similarly twisted until it broke. The bunya pine was not replaced.

More Monkey Puzzles

This is a monkey puzzle growing in the cloister of the Franciscan church in Bolzano. It seems to be thriving in what looks like a shady spot in a cool alpine area.




[1] As Matthew Wilson, writing in the Financial Times (6 July 2013) put it: ‘One of the peculiarities of the monkey puzzle is how frequently, for what is after all a large forest tree …, it can be found in tiny front gardens. Either this is an example of a mass act of arboricultural insanity or, perhaps more likely, due to its popularity as a “spot plant” or focal point in formal bedding schemes where its form and curious, shiny foliage would have been much admired. Fast forward to today and … the once diminutive spot plant grown into a fully fledged tree ….


This entry was posted in All Posts, Architecture, Arts and Crafts Movement, Baroque Gardens, Garden History, Montacute, Plants, Uncategorized, Villa Castagna, Wombat Hill Botanical Gardens and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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