The Devil and the Monkey Puzzle Tree

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 of 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 thought to be imbued with special qualities long 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 British 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 “d├ęsespoir 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.



Lapinbizarre said…
Remember the trees well from my childhood and checked on Google Earth very recently to see if they were still there. They weren't.
Anonymous said…
"Hush" my mum said as we walked down the road
Her words would fill us with dread
With lips clamped tight our wills full o'might our words just in our head

Sighs of relief.unscathed, onto Queen's park we'd trek
To the swings and the lake with the bread that we'd take, the geese more than willing to peck.

Homeward bound soon came round,
To the park we bade farewll, tired but still resolute,
The mighty trees they would tease, held our will to its knee's then we'd pass and yell "Hoot hoot hoot"

Poor mum..... : ))
Kate Gibson.
Chris Dawson said…
Wow that's actually pretty good Kate. Do you write much?
Anonymous said…
haha not likely!
I remember the council asked us to leave our house for the day as they had to fumigate the block for blackjacks (nice eh) and mum took us all down to the park with jsm butties and corporation pop and I raced on ahead and misjudged the tree because I was chattering with excitement, I lost the belt from my best dress on the park, I was mortified!

Years later I started dating a guy from down south and always hushed him when we passed the trees, He thought us Northern monkey's were bonkers with our superstitions yet he never spoke again when passing them LOL.
Chris Dawson said…
LOL, he probably still talks about those weird people in Heywood.
Anonymous said…
I had been raised in Tring, Hertfordshire and I was told it was bad luck to say the name of the tree if you weren't looking at it. I still won't!
Corraddo said…
I,could not believe my eyes when stepping aside politely to give way instantly as lost in thought as this long branch which had stopped me In my tracks or the overlarge female lumbering towards me on my blind side might have resulted in my own death caused by being taught too many manners at such a young age meaning I often tripped over my own feet as usual. As I was falling I managed to birl away from the arm of the monkey puzzle but hit it's tiny pot and as I slithered backwards now attempting to avoid both of them the four foot monkey toppled over in time to soften the arrogance fall
Unknown said…
I live in Holland and it is believed that if you plant one in You garden and it dies then a member of you family will also die, consequently the Dutch people are reluctant to plant one
Chris Dawson said…
Interesting about the Dutch thing. Thanks for that :)
Unknown said…
I have had one in my garden for 11 years now it is greatly admired however I’ve noticed hence the reason I’ve looked up Monkey puzzle trees that it is looking ‘yellow ‘ is this a danger to the tree ? I live in Eastlothian Scotland any idea can it be lacking water ?
Andy. said…
Great, I have just purchased one and I was unaware of the superstition related to this tree.x
Unknown said…
Millcroft tea room has a large collection of monkey puzzle trees, i belive on of the biggest outside of q gardens
Unknown said…
My daughter recently purchased some property that has a 7 acre arboretum on it in the Pacific Northwest of America. The monkey puzzle tree here is about 40 feet high. Fascinating.
Graham Spiteri said…
As said above there's a large collection of them at the Mill Croft Tea Rooms which is at the Norden side of Ashworth Valley a local natural beauty spot . Unfortunately some have been felled but it's still a wonderful experience to see so many together.

Graham Spiteri
Four jays said…
I have always liked the look of the monkey tree. When I was young there was one I would pass regularly near where I lived I. Thornton. Heath surrey. I moved to the Isle of Wight a few years ago and decided to buy one….it is planted in the front garden and is now twice the size four years later. It seems to be healthy and loving where it is and I’ve noticed that there are a few around where I live on the east side of the island. I hope to be here for a good few years and hope to see it grown tall and strong.
Unknown said…
I brought a tiny Monkey Tree home from my school bazar. It was in a tiny pot and ontly a few inches tall. My mum planted it at the edge of the garden. Now thirty years later the tree looms very tall and get alot of attention as their is a foot path next to our garden. I wasnt aware they were so steeped in folklore and superstition. I feel I may be the carylist for any bad luck.Abit of a burden to carry.
anquietas313 said…
I just found one in the Pacific Northwest of Washington State didn't realize it was such a rare beauty, I am quite fond of it, Funny how it was just there. Quite interesting to say the least. I swear I had a dream about it. Ancient Acent.