The Pewen tree, or Monkey Puzzle (Araucaria araucana)


Trees often have many names. Names from their local communities, names from countries of origin, names from those who have carried them to other continents and countries. Which one is ‘right’? This species is known locally as the Pewen or piñonero, its scientific name as the Araucaria araucana, in Britain as the Monkey Puzzle, but then also known as the Chile pine. It is an evergreen ornamental and timber conifer of the family Araucariaceae, native to the Andes Mountains of South America.

UK History and ecology:

The species was first brought to the UK in 1795 from its native areas of Chile and Argentina. It is, in fact, Chile’s national tree. This tree is what ecologists refer to as a ‘pioneer species’. It has been around for 200 million years, meaning it is a survivor from the time of dinosaurs. Its spine-like needles acted as protection from ancient grazing animals, whilst its thick, fire-resistant bark has served as armour against lightning and volcanic activity. It became popular during the Victorian era and is now widely planted as an ornamental in parks and gardens.

The name, Monkey Puzzle, originates from the mid-1800s when barrister Charles Austin commented that climbing such a specimen would be a puzzle even for a monkey.

The native name of the tree is Pewen (Pehuén).

Native history and importance:

There is a region called Araucanía in Southern Chile, home to the Mapuche people. Broken down this means mapu: land, che: people – people of the land. One branch of these people call themselves the Pewenche (people of the Pewen). Here, the Pewen tree has been a central figure in traditions and culture for thousands of years. It has been an important source of food (the seeds are eaten by both people and livestock, and can last up to four years if properly preserved), shelter (fallen branches are used as building materials), and medicine (resin from the trunk can treat ulcers and wounds) as well as being the inspiration for strength and resilience among the Mapuche people.

Future of the Pewen tree:

The tree was declared endangered in 2013 largely due to climate change and illegal felling. Research suggests that the Pewen could be extinct in just a couple of generations. But, there is hope as the Mapuche are cultivating the slow-growing, life-giving trees as part of regaining their traditional lands. Both the forests and the Mapuche communities stand to benefit, as well as the wider global community. Read more about the efforts to save the species here.

The World in the Woodland audio tour:

Saturday 17 June saw the launch of an audio tour commissioned by Tortworth Forest Centre and ingeniously brought to life by artist Morgan Tipping. You can read the full post all about the project here. Morgan spent many months gathering a constellation of voices centred around the Pewen.

A museum of the future:

In bringing species away from their native cultures and renaming them, we lose a vast amount of rich cultural and ecological history. Is it this history Morgan has sought out and shared through a series of audio conversations. The voices are designed to be heard as you roam the forest, eventually discovering the Pewen tree, nestled in the far depths of the arboretum. The tour explores questions of access to land, reciprocity, care, connection and justice both with the land we call home, other native lands, and the species for whom home is elsewhere.

Thoughts from participants:

“This is one of the most powerful and well put together outdoor audio tours I have experienced”

“The range of stories and voices, connected by this one species, was inspirational”

“I’m so glad this tour was made; it was beautiful, calming and a different way to consciously connect to the trees”

“I’d never thought about how colonialism connects with trees before”

What next?

You can read more about The World in the Woodland here and download tracks for the audio tour here.

But for now, next time you see a Pewen tree, we hope you will feel a little more knowledgable, and closer to, this majestic species. Thank you to Morgan Tipping, Celia Turley and all those who lent their voices to this inspirational project.