The monkey puzzle tree became quite popular in the late 18th century due to its unique appearance. Its foliage is quite out of the ordinary and interesting to look at. Monkey puzzles are also known as “Monkey Tail” or “Chilean Pine” trees. They are evergreens that are native to Chile and Argentina and will thrive in zones 6-10.
The name is believed to have originated from the owner of a young puzzle tree at Pencarrow Garden in Cornwall. As he was showing off the strange looking tree, someone stated “It would puzzle a monkey to climb that tree.”
Choosing a location: Plant your monkey puzzle tree where it will receive full sun or partial shade. If you experience particularly hot summers, planting the tree somewhere that gets extra shade in the afternoon will help protect it from getting scorched. They grow in almost any kind of soil as long as it is well drained. If there is a high content of clay in your soil, amend it using sand and pebbles to increase the drainage capability.
*TIP* You can test your drainage by digging a 1 foot wide by 1 foot deep hole and filling it with water. Wait an hour, if the water has not fully drained, you will need to amend the soil to allow better drainage
Coastal regions are good for this tree, as the monkey puzzle does well with salty air. It will not do well around a lot of pollution so big city locations may not be the best idea. Monkey puzzles can also be planted in a container for areas that have long periods of freezing winter temperatures.
Planting directions (in ground):
1) Dig your hole twice as wide and just as deep as the root ball. Loosen the soil around the hole and the root ball so that the roots can easily break through.
2) Position the roots downwards into the hole and be sure the tree is straight.
3) As you backfill the hole, make sure you remove all air pockets by tamping down the soil and applying water.
4) Water the tree planting area again after planting is complete to settle the soil.
Planting directions (potted): You can easily maintain a monkey puzzle in your home if the climate is too hot/cold for outdoor planting.
1) Choose a pot size that you can maintain. Monkey puzzles are like goldfish, their size will be determined by the container it’s in.
2) Plant the tree into the pot using a well draining houseplant potting soil. A basic Miracle Grow potting medium will work just fine.
3) They enjoy a full sun exposure so keeping the pot next to a South facing window should allow it to get the proper amount of sun.
Watering: Water the tree deeply every week or two during its first year. Remember, you want a moist soil, not saturated. Allow the soil to get dry before you water the tree again. Add a 2-3 inch layer of mulch at the base of the tree to retain soil moisture and keep the roots cool during hot summer temperatures. You can reduce the watering during the cooler seasons.
For a potted monkey puzzle, try to keep the soil slightly moistened. A good way to get an idea for how often to water is by using your index finger. Stick it into the soil down to a depth of a couple inches and feel around. If there is some moisture still there, leave it be. If the soil feels like it’s getting dry, give it just enough water to where you see water starting to escape through the drainage holes and stop.
Pruning: Early spring is the best time for pruning the monkey puzzle tree. This is the best time to remove any issues that may have occurred over the winter. Always be sure to sterilize your cutting tool with some rubbing alcohol and make your cut at a 45 degree angle above a lateral branch. Also remove any brown or yellowing leaves by making your cut as close to the trunk as possible.
Suckers may appear near the base of the tree. Be sure to remove these as soon as possible as they will steal nutrients away from the primary trunk. A monkey puzzle has a naturally round shape that is relatively easy to maintain with little effort but can be shaped into any desired form. Lower branches of a potted puzzle tree will die off later in the plant’s life and these will need to be removed.
Fertilization: Puzzles need a good fertile soil in order to grow. You can amend some compost into your soil at the planting site if it’s lacking in nutrients. A monthly feeding around early spring to summer with an all purpose, water soluble fertilizer formula is recommended. Potted puzzles need a monthly fertilizing with a balanced house plant food. If the tree’s new growth appears to be pale in color then this is an early warning that more fertilizer is needed. Apply a micro-nutrient spray yearly once or twice for the best results.