With no more than 550 men Cortés was able to conquer the entire Aztec Empire. The Incas fell to Pizarro and his band of 180 conquistadors and a few horses. But when Pedro de Valdivia moved against the Araucanian Indians (now called the Mapuches) of southern Chile in 1541 things were to turn out differently. By 1554 Valdivia had been captured lashed to a tree and decapitated. Some say that his Indian executors then ripped out his heart and devoured it. Not until 1881 were the Mapuches finally forced into submission and the area opened to European settlers. Imagine therefore the trepidation with which the Scottish naval surgeon and botanist, Archibald Menzies sat down to dine at a banquet with the locals in 1795. A fear made even more intense as he surreptitiously slipped a few nuts from the table into his pocket. Archibald’s impoliteness was not because he preferred his food deep fried, but because he wanted to get his hands on a crop regarded as sacred by the local Indians, a crop that was their staple food, the monkey puzzle.
The monkey puzzle or Chile pine which is known in Latin as Araucaria araucana, was named in honour of Indians of southern Chile and not after the compiler of the Guardian crossword. Now well known in the gardens of British suburbia, this evergreen conifer is native to Chile and Argentina where it once dominated vast tracts of forest. It can grow to a majestic 30 meters and takes 30 or 40 years to become mature. Female trees produce cones, which are the size of a human head. After two or three years maturing these cones crash to the ground still containing their 200 plus almond like fatty seeds. This ease of harvesting the nuts along with their high-energy value made them appear to Archibald as a potential wonder crop of the future. It was calculated that only eighteen mature female trees grown with three accompanying males were all that was required to sustain a grown man for a year. Unfortunately it is impossible to determine the gender of the trees until they start to flower, it may therefore take more than thirty years before the sex ratio can be adjusted. Today the concept of a single species diet sounds rather monotonous, but to the Scottish surgeon accustomed to long years at sea it was an attractive enough prospect to risk committing a serious social blunder.
Once back on board ship Menzies carefully planted his valuable seeds. He loving tendered his monkey puzzles during the journey home around Cape Horn. The long years on board George Vancouver’s ‘Discovery’ in search of the fabled Northwest Passage Vancouver’s had carried Menzies around the Pacific and along the West Coast of North and South America. The rigours of the voyage had caused the death of all Menzies’ plants. Only his dried herbarium specimens, which were to form part of the Kew and Edinburgh Royal Botanical Garden collections, and five of his treasured monkey puzzles survived intact. Thus it was that in 1795 the monkey puzzle was introduced to Britain, not as a horticultural curiosity, but heralded as a new wonder crop, destined to feed the masses. The plants were donated to Sir Joseph Banks, one of which survived at Kew until1892.
Sadly not only did the monkey puzzle fail to make any contribution to the British diet, it has also suffered a serious decline in its native Chile due to logging. The once extensive pine forests have gone, all that remains are two small populations, one along the coast and another on Chile’s boarder with Argentina. International trade in the monkey puzzle is outlawed under CITES the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, rather too late to prosecute Archibald Menzies, who risked rather more than a fine, for his dream.