At the northern tip of Vancouver Island there is an unlikely kind of Eden. It is a refuge for rare plants from around the world, carved from the temperate rainforest.
Ronning’s Garden, named after Norwegian settler Bernt Ronning, is a 90-minute drive west of Port Hardy down narrow, sun-starved logging roads. There’s always a sense, on these roads, with the trees hungry and stretching on each side, that given a year or two, the forest will heal over the human-made scratch, leaving only a slim, ever-paling scar.
The turn-off to Ronning’s Garden leads to a one-lane avenue, more rut than road. Grass grows in the middle, with muddy wallows on each side. It’s the terminus of a never-finished wagon trail meant for settlers and left now mostly to nature. Handmade maps show the cosmopolitan nature of Ronning’s Eden: bamboo and eucalyptus groves; Japanese maples, Irish yew and Portuguese laurel. It’s a wonder what local Roosevelt elk make of it, stumbling out of the woods and into an international all-you-can-eat buffet. Flanking the entrance road for most of the garden’s life have been two specimens of an easily recognized, if under-appreciated tree. It’s a Chilean import with a world-spanning passport and a history dating back more than 200 million years. It’s called the monkey puzzle tree.
You don’t have to be an expert dendrophile to pick a monkey puzzle tree out of a lineup. Juvenile trees look like the product of a child’s arts-and-crafts session. Rigid branches curl off the trunk at sharp angles, like hand-twisted pipe cleaners. There is almost an artifice about them, as in amateur nature drawings, where the beginner artist tries too hard to control the natural sweep of a tree’s branches, and instead accidentally creates something over-determined. With its awkwardly jutting branches, and its trunk and limbs scaled with sharp, spade-shaped green leaves, the adolescence of a monkey puzzle tree seems like an uncomfortable one.
Fortunately, as happens often in stories and occasionally in life, Araucaria araucana grows into itself with grace, the arboreal equivalent of Hans Christian Andersen’s ugly duckling. A mature monkey puzzle tree punches straight up on a relatively thin trunk, scraping the underbelly of the sky at 40 metres: tall enough to peer comfortably into the top-floor windows of the Empress Hotel. The branches remain stiff and scaled in green, but they sweep in bold and certain lines: the tree as avant-garde art. It’s not hard to imagine Bjork wearing one to an awards show. Adult trees are uncommon on Vancouver Island, and fully grown trees totally absent: individual monkey puzzle trees can live for up to 500 years.
Give it some time. In their long history, both human and natural, monkey puzzle trees have only recently arrived here.
The journey from Chile to the Pacific Northwest was a curious one, inextricably bound to the spread of the British Empire, whose ships encircled the globe as if trailing threads of red twine, knotting countries and continents together. In Chile, the monkey puzzle tree is known as the pehuén. It is endemic to the northern Patagonian steppe, growing in a thin band in the Andean mountains and valleys bordering Chile and Argentina. For at least the past 4,000 years (as long as human habitation can be verified), the pehuén has been a sacred tree for the Indigenous Mapuche people. Its pine nuts are a staple food, gathered during annual summer migrations, its bark is used for medicine, and the trees themselves act as signposts and markers, delineating family territories handed down over generations.
In Mapuche cosmology, the trees are symbols of community: a male and female tree come together, and beneath their shade families grow and prosper. So culturally important is the monkey puzzle tree that, in the Mapuzungun language, the people refer to themselves as Pehuenche: the people (che) of the pehuén.
The monkey puzzle tree’s intersection with Vancouver Island began in 1795, at the end of George Vancouver’s five-year circumnavigation of the world. Following his 1792 navigation of the island that would come to bear his name, Vancouver and his expedition were anchored off the west coast of South America. To the delight of his men, and of the tired and sickly Vancouver, they were finally making their way home to England, though not without complications. At the time, Chile was a Spanish colony, and relations between the two countries were complex and constantly changing. In 1792, George Vancouver and the Spanish captain Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra had met at Nootka Sound, where a misunderstanding had almost led to war. The little inlet on the west coast of Vancouver Island had been a flashpoint for conflict for more than a decade, with the British, Russian and Spanish empires squabbling for control of it.
When his expedition was dispatched from England, Vancouver believed that he was meeting de la Bodega y Quadra to accept English control of Nootka Sound, and to establish an English trading post. Unfortunately, in the two years it took for Vancouver to sail from England to the Pacific Northwest, his orders had changed — the Spanish were to remain in control. No one told Vancouver this, and tense meetings between the English and Spanish captains accomplished nothing in Nootka, except perhaps to give both men heartburn.
The English explorer did eventually acquire more up-to-date orders, which were now to avoid any more contact with Spaniards in the Pacific. Unfortunately, Vancouver’s ships were leaking; his men were hungry, tired and growing mutinous. Facing an unpleasant and notoriously dangerous trip around Cape Horn, through the unpredictable waters of the Southern Ocean, Vancouver opted for a Chilean resupply.
For five weeks Vancouver’s ships sat in dry-dock beneath the cliffs of the colourful harbour city of Valparaiso. Under the weakening sun of the Southern Hemisphere’s late summer, Vancouver’s men worked the ships back into seaworthiness. Amid bustling docks, they caulked the hull and sewed new sails, while the Chilean Viceroy feted the officers as distinguished guests. The diplomatic decrees of continental Europe were half a world away. They played second fiddle to a much more human impulse for the Viceroy — after a long and lonely posting, here were interesting strangers with stories to tell. The Viceroy had news for Vancouver, too: England and Spain were no longer on the verge of war, and in fact were now allied against the French. Plus ça change.
Among George Vancouver’s officers was the expedition’s naturalist and surgeon, Archibald Menzies. An irascible, red-faced Scotsman (as if there was any other kind) with a high forehead and a jutting chin, Menzies was a life-long gardener and a botanical fanatic. Over the course of Vancouver’s journey, he collected and catalogued some 400 plant species, endearing himself to no one along the way (Vancouver would later attempt to court-martial him for dereliction of duty). His diligence, or obsession, with plant collection lives on among names in the Pacific Northwest, most notably in the scientific name for the Douglas fir: Pseudotsuga menziesii.
While his scientific acumen was first rate, his table manners left something to be desired. At dinner one evening at La Moneda, the Viceroy's palatial house in Santiago, Menzies was served a plate of pinon nuts, the seeds of a pehuén tree. More curious than polite, he slipped the nuts into his pocket and carried them back to England, where he cultivated them in London’s Kew Gardens, watching with delight as they sprouted into the strange, beautiful monkey puzzle tree.
In the fad-chasing, cutthroat world of competitive English gardening, the striking new immigrant was an immediate success. Despite its slow growth, seeds and cuttings filtered out of London and across the wealthy estates of southern England, where the climate was similar enough to the Andean steppes (and to Vancouver Island, for that matter) to allow the tree to grow.
It was on one such estate that the pehuén acquired its colloquial English name. Sir William Molesworth, a politician and publisher, lived in an estate house called Pencarrow, near Cornwall, which had a young pehuén tree in its garden. One day, in approximately 1850, he was showing his friends around the garden, when lawyer and minor railroad magnate Charles Austin caught sight of the curious, spiny little tree and quipped, “It would puzzle a monkey to climb that.” Presumably, everyone laughed with the polite laughter we give to friends who have attempted a joke. I cannot speak to the biological truth of his assessment — having never seen a monkey try to climb the tree — but the squirrels of Victoria seem to have no problem with it. Nevertheless, the name stuck.
How the monkey puzzle tree came to the Pacific Northwest specifically, finishing the long circular journey started by Vancouver, is less clear. Possibly it was an anglophilic inclination of British-Canadian gardeners, aping English fads. Possibly some of them came directly from Chile, pinons in the pockets and knapsacks of vaqueros and other chancers chasing the Gold Rush on steamships from Valparaiso to Alaska. But the best story is Bernt Ronning, and his garden.
When Ronning came to Vancouver Island in the early 1900s, the northern part of the island had seen successive waves of settlement, none of which had seemed to stick. The isolation and dense forest made for a lonely and claustrophobic existence, and the unreliable seas made for difficult resupplies. The area was studded with abandoned homesteads, linked on chains of rugged wagon roads.
None of this seemed to matter to Ronning, who took up residence along one such road between San Josef Bay and the newly incorporated Danish settlement of Holberg. A surviving photograph of him shows a man not easily deterred. Tall, thin, with a fading peak of dark hair, he eyes the cameraman with skepticism, squinting against the sun from behind round, accountant’s eyeglasses. He has a backpack slung over his shoulder, and his pants are cinched at the knees above a pair of comfortable boots. There is a sense that he’s been interrupted in constant motion, and is not best pleased with the interruption.
Like Menzies before him, Ronning was a botanical obsessive. But Ronning had access to one invention that Menzies didn’t: the mail-order seed catalogue. From his homestead near San Josef Bay, Ronning ordered seeds from around the world, travelling back and forth on the rough wagon road to collect his earthy bounty from the ferry terminal near Cape Scott. He planted them on his five-acre rainforest plot, creating a bespoke Eden, where he also built a dance hall and entertained sailors, settlers and other passersby. Among the seeds he ordered and planted were those of the monkey puzzle tree, very likely the first on Vancouver Island.
What makes the monkey puzzle tree further interesting — if its beauty, human history and biology are not enough — is its deep evolutionary past. The monkey puzzle tree is an example of an informal group of plants, animals and fungi known as living fossils. In a rare victory for linguistic clarity in the sciences, a living fossil is almost exactly what it sounds like: a prehistoric creature that has managed to navigate the travails of time to still exist today.
There are three criteria to fulfil in order to join this august group of organisms. The first, unsurprisingly, is be old — be really, really old. Geologist Derek Turner calls this having “prehistorically deep morphological stability.” Translation: not just ancient, but also unchanged. If we were to take a time machine back millions of years, the species which we call living fossils now would be immediately apparent — they are the species we would recognize as familiar, the ones that might make us feel at home in the past. The monkey puzzle tree, for its part, evolved 200 million years ago, in the Mesozoic era, and has been unchanged since.
The second criteria for being a living fossil is to be relatively alone, on the terminal branches of your kind’s family tree. It’s less important that the species itself be rare, and more that the species have few cousins or close relatives. When living fossils stage a family reunion, they don’t need to rent out an entire hotel to house their kin — a broom closet will usually do. The pehuén’s closest relative is the Brazilian pine, or candelabra tree. It shares the monkey puzzle’s sweeping awkwardness, although the Brazilian tree’s arms stick stiffly upwards, like a frightened, if enthusiastic, roller-coaster rider.
The third criteria for living fossil status can be a trickier one: high genetic diversity. Evolution is a winnowing process — natural selection’s unthinking search for optimization reduces a species genetic diversity over time, in favour of the highest rate of survival right now. If, as they say, “when God closes a door, He opens a window,” evolution might be a stingier interior designer: when it closes a door, it’s probably also nailing the windows shut too — but on the upside, you’ve become the world’s expert in climbing out of chimneys.
Old and unchanged species, like living fossils, have survived without that winnowing process. They can throw open doors, windows and anything else. The genetic code of a living fossil is the DNA equivalent of the library of Alexandria: it is an archive of a former world.
Coelacanths and monkey puzzles; pelicans and lampreys; tuataras and horseshoe crabs. Living fossils make for esoteric bedfellows. In Wonderful Life, his book about Cambrian evolution, Stephen Jay Gould writes that the history of life on Earth “holds a million scenarios, each perfectly sensible.” Seemingly insignificant moments in geological time — an atmospheric storm here, a strange ocean current there — lead to vastly different outcomes. Less survival of the fittest than survival of the fortunate.
Imagine a small stand of monkey puzzle trees, as-yet unnamed and unknown by humans, rising alone on edges of South America’s Patagonian steppe. It’s the dawn of the Pleistocene era, 2.5 million years in Earth’s past. The Isthmus of Panama has just drifted into place, connecting North and South America for the first time, and facilitating a massive interchange of animals. Megafauna, the giant mammals of ancestral memory, roam the continents. Some of them we know, their legacies echoing in contemporary culture: the woolly mammoth, the sabre-toothed cat, or the short-faced bear.
Others are more mysterious. In South America, giant ground sloths roam the steppes. Taller than a bull elephant, and weighing at least as much, if they were alive today they would be the largest land mammals on Earth. Their diet, among other things, included the seeds of Araucaria araucana: the same seeds later celebrated by the Mapuche, the same seeds later slipped into the overcoat pocket of Archibald Menzies, the same seeds later catalogue-ordered by Bernt Ronning.
Neither the sloths nor the trees have any way of knowing that soon temperatures will plunge across the world, and great sheets of ice will carve their way south from the North Pole, grinding continents beneath their weight and creating the landscapes we know today. The combined effects of climate change, human depredation and disease will lead to the mass extinction of American flora and fauna. But a few monkey puzzle trees will survive: that single, small population, dodging the furthest reaches of the glaciers on the isolated rim of Patagonia. They will grow in refuge, sheltered by good fortune, until the glaciers recede and they can spread again: first through the Andes, and now, an epoch later, to the parks and gardens of the Pacific Northwest.
Monkey puzzle trees are a Pleistocene refugee, and we’re not so different. Not too long (in geological terms, what’s a million years here or there?) after the trees evolved in South America, our early human ancestors in Africa started coming down from the trees (or standing up in the grass, or learning to swim — it depends who you ask). When the Pleistocene Ice Age erased swathes of life across the planet, we only narrowly escaped. We Homo sapiens are, by some reckoning, not so far from being a living fossil ourselves. That seems absurd on the face of it — after all, along with rats, we’re probably the most populous mammal on the planet — but our family tree is a sparse one. Of the 12 to 14 other Homo species that have walked the Earth, modern humans are the only survivor.
Our nearest cousins were the Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis. Like the monkey puzzle tree, they were products of the Pleistocene period, but unlike the tree, Neanderthals are extinct. They disappeared 40,000 years ago from some combination of climate change, disease and violent conflict. Outside the genus Homo, our closest hominid relatives are chimpanzees and bonobos, whose propensity for both violence and play sometimes make them appear a little too human (or perhaps make us feel a little too animal). Both species, and all their subspecies, are endangered. Our family tree was never a fulsome one, even at its heights, and injudicious over-pruning now leaves it looking like the last flower of autumn.
After Bernt Ronning’s death in the 1960s, the surrounding rainforest grew quickly to overcome the little patch of green exotica he’d so carefully cultivated in life. At the turn of the millennium, new caretakers forced the forest back again. Today the garden remains a strange, enticing patch of cultivation in the otherwise wild.
Flanking the entrance road for most of the garden’s life have been two monkey puzzle trees, the first two Ronning ever planted. On one side of the road, a male tree; on the other, a female. Knowingly or not, Ronning’s planting recreated the Mapuche cosmology of the pehuén’s homeland: the male and female tree came together, and in their shade the rest of his garden grew.
The female tree has died, but the male tree lives on, and the garden is thick with their juvenile progeny. The rest of the island is too: it’s impossible to know how many monkey puzzle trees in the Pacific Northwest owe their legacy to Ronning’s beginnings, but he spent his life assiduously sending seeds and cuttings to anyone who asked. By one estimate, at least 15,000 seeds or saplings have been shipped from his garden.
Ronning’s curious cultivation of the Chilean tree ensured that its imported life in the Pacific Northwest continues, another chapter in the tree’s 200-million-year journey.