The Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) is not a common sight in Monkey Town. The rather exotic spiked trunk and winding branches always caught the attention of local children, and two in particular that stuck in the memory were the trees in a front garden on Heywood Hall Road (which was on the route to Queen’s Park for many people).
One well-remembered aspect of these trees was the superstition surrounding them. Some parents actually told their children to be quiet as they passed the tree, various reasons being that they would have bad luck or lose something, or in some cases even grow a monkey’s tail! This led those children who actually wanted a monkey’s tail to shout out as they passed by the trees.
Superstitions about the Monkey Puzzle tree can be found throughout Britain. One widely-shared bit of folklore is that the Devil himself sits in this tree and people have to be quiet when walking past or else they will attract the Devil’s attention and get bad luck. In some cases this was to be bad luck for three years. This is clearly a story that reached Heywood. Strangely enough, an old Cambridgeshire belief has Monkey Puzzle trees being planted on the edge of graveyards to PREVENT the Devil from climbing them and then watching burials.
This link between the Devil and the tree was recalled in more recent times by Dougal Douglas, the main character of the 1960 novel The Ballad of Peckham Rye. He was said to be associated with the Devil and had shape-shifting abilities, and in one scene he adopted the form a Monkey Puzzle tree.
Tree superstitions have been widespread in Britain dating back to prehistory, so it is no surprise that the unusual Monkey Puzzle attracted such stories. It was actually imbued with special qualities before it ever arrived in Britain, as it was sacred to some members of the Indigenous Mapuche tribes of the historic Araucania region of south-central Chile and south-western Argentina, where it originated.
Of course the superstitions may simply be a bit of 19th-century parental health and safety management, as the spikes on the trunk are very sharp and parents would have wanted their children to avoid the trees. It is easy to imagine mothers warning their children to stay away from the trees and using the Devil to scare them. This would be similar to the many localised tales of Jenny Greenteeth, the ghoulish creatures that were said to live in ponds and drag unsuspecting children underwater. In fact the dangerous qualities of the tree were recently highlighted when a Welsh local council wanted to cut down a 150-year-old specimen because of the danger the thorns presented to children.
THE FIRST MONKEY PUZZLE TREES IN ENGLAND?
One story that did the rounds among Heywoodites was that these were the first Monkey Puzzle trees in England! This sounds like a typical urban myth and there is no evidence to support it. Araucaria araucana were originally found on the flanks of the Andes in Chile and Argentina, and it is thought that specimens were brought to Britain by the plant collector Archibald Menzies in 1795. He kept some nuts that he was given as dessert during a banquet in Chile, then grew them on his voyage home before donating them to Kew Gardens. There is no logical reason why these prized specimens would have ended up on Heywood Hall Road.
WHY IS IT CALLED THE 'MONKEY PUZZLE' TREE?
Before the 1850s the tree had the popular name of ‘Joseph Banks pine’, named after the famous botanist. The current name is said to have started in the 1850s when the owner of a young specimen near Bodmin, Cornwall, showed the tree to some friends. One of them pointed out its spiky trunk and winding branches and remarked that "It would puzzle a monkey to climb that". The names “monkey-puzzler” and then “monkey-puzzle” took hold after this time. In France it was known as the “désespoir des singes”, or “monkeys' despair".
(It is thought that that the spiky leaves evolved not to deter monkeys, but rather the grazing dinosaurs of the Mesozoic era of 250 million years ago, which the Araucariaceae tree family can be traced back to.)
Araucaria araucana is now listed as an endangered species, but the trees on Heywood Hall Road have been cut down in recent years. This was probably for the best as Araucarias can grow to 30-40 metres tall and live for 1000 years, making them unsuitable for local streets. There are a few other Monkey Puzzle trees scattered around Monkey Town, but the old superstitions are probably passing into history.
Do you know of any other Monkey Puzzle trees in Heywood, or any other stories and superstitions about them? Let us know in the comment section below. Photos are welcome too.
- Muriel Spark, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, London, Penguin Books, 1960.
- Alan Mitchell, Alan Mitchell's Trees of Britain, London, Collins, 1996.
- Enid Porter, Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore, London, Routledge Kegan & Paul, 1969.
- Mail Online, ‘150-year-old Monkey puzzle tree facing chop because council says its needles are 'like syringes', 24 May 2008.
- Facebook, ‘Remembering Heywood’, 2012.
- Wikipedia, ‘Araucaria araucana’.
- William Moult, ‘The Monkey Puzzle Tree Harvest’, The Steel Crown, no.6, 1997, North American Araucanian Royalist Society.