Unusual Trees to Look Out for (8) & (9)

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 Araucaria heterophylla, Norfolk Island Pine 165/24 

Meaning: The genus is named for the Araucaria Indians of Patagonia, and heterophylla = different-leaved, referring to the conspicuous difference between young and mature plants.  Sometimes also called “star pine” because of its symmetrical shape as a sapling.  Synonym: A. excelsa.  There are 19 species in the genus.

 No more a pine than the Chile Pine (Monkey-Puzzle Tree), these survivors of a very old coniferous family are scattered around the Pacific and of course, Chile.  From an origin in the Triassic, the family expanded and diversified in both hemispheres in the Jurassic and Early Cretaceous and remained a significant component of Gondwanan vegetation until the latter part of the Cenozoic.  Norfolk Island is located between Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia, and the genus is especially concentrated about 700 km north of Norfolk Island, where 13 closely related species are found.  In their native habitat A. heterophylla can grow to a height of up to 65m.


According to two supposedly authoritative sources, the only known outdoor specimen in the British Isles is in the Scillies, but I think this may be out of date.  In recent years, they have had some popularity as an indoor potted Christmas tree, although they need some care to flourish.  Outdoors, although they’re known to be quite happy in salt and wind, they’re said not to survive in areas of prolonged cold.  Some people may have a strong allergic reaction if they touch the leaves.  They are, however, widely planted in Australia, New Zealand, southern Florida, coastal California, south Texas, Hawaii, coastal Chile, South Africa, and some cities of Brazil.


There’s a considerable bit of history attached to Norfolk Island and its ‘pines’, and other plants, too, particularly New Zealand flax.  It was made a penal colony in the 1780s, mainly for Australian convicts who were too mutinous even for Australia, and this practice continued until 1847.  Meanwhile, in 1789, the Bounty mutineers had been marooned on Pitcairn Island.  They intermarried with Tahitians, and by 1856, 194 of their descendants, who had become too numerous for Pitcairn, were allowed to resettle on Norfolk.  The story of how the settlers had planted two rows of the pines to create a magnificent avenue, and how, now a majestic 80 feet tall and six feet in diameter, they came to be cut down in the course of World War II in the Pacific, is told in James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, Chapter 3, “Mutiny”.  We also have Michener’s book to thank for the musical.  The island of Bali-ha’i in the stage story and film is said by no less an authority than Stephen Jay Gould to be based on the island of Moorea, and some of Moorea’s natural history is also the subject of an essay in Gould’s Eight Little Piggies.

Araucaria araucana, Monkey-Puzzle Tree 165/24 

 Meaning: As above, plus species named for the Araucano Indians of Chile.

The tree was first found in Chile in the 1780s by the botanical explorer Molina.  Before 1850, it was known in England as “Joseph Banks’s Pine” or “Chile Pine”.  In about 1850, when it began to be cultivated in England, the species was still very rare in gardens and not widely known.  The proud owner of a young specimen at Pencarrow Gardens near Bodmin, in Cornwall, was showing it to a group of friends.  One remarked that “It would puzzle a monkey to climb that”, and the name “Monkey-puzzle” stuck as a popular term.

  A. araucana in Whalley Range, Manchester

  In the mountains of Chile

A big thank you to Botany volunteer Dan King for the idea, words and images of ‘Unusual Trees Around Manchester’.

One thought on “Unusual Trees to Look Out for (8) & (9)

    Robert said:
    August 4, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    Sadly The Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) has had problems due to industrialised countries such as Australia polluting the seas with surfactants. These pollutants become airborne and dissolve the cuticle on the leaf which in turn causes desiccation and eventual decline in the specimen. I lived in Australia for most of my life and the best specimens I have seen are in ancient calciferous coastal sands. Ironically I also lived in New York for a year or two and the exact same problem existed there next to The East River where millions had been spent on re-developing a riverside park encompassing rehabilitation of land previously used for wharves. The newly installed ornamental trees immediately went into decline and senescence with rather horrible consequences when considering the aesthetics of these slowly dying trees. The lesson is we all share our oceans so be careful where you wash your car and where you dispose of waste. The Norfolk Island Pine would be considered as highly tolerant of airborne pollutants such as those that result from burning petrochemicals in our vehicles, no plant can survive once it’s cuticles integrity or structure is damaged and once airborne surfactants that have become dissolved in water from human activities few plants stand any chance of survival. The situation is exacerbated in the case of Norfolk Island as the string winds and wave action provide ample opportunity for wind blown particles containing these surfactants and this had been similar to the situation I found in New York. It is sad to think that trees may no longer survive adjacent to a body of water in certain regions and we should all be thankful in Manchester and surrounding areas we have avoided such issues with pollution.

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