Wander about the grounds of Harrison House Inn and Suites on C Street in Friday Harbor, and you will discover a tree whose origins trace back to the days of the dinosaurs.
The Monkey Puzzle Tree (Araucaria Araucana), located on the corner of the Inn’s property, is native to the Southern Andes foothills, and was declared an endangered species in 2013 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In 1976 it was declared the National Tree of Chile.
There is no official record of how this tree was brought to Friday Harbor, but it was probably brought here by someone who admired the unusual shape and hardiness of the Monkey Puzzle in an ornamental garden in the British Isles. How did these seeds make their way from Chile, to England and Ireland, and finally to Friday Harbor? The answer lies in the famous expedition of George Vancouver, 1790 – 1795. After exploring the Pacific Northwest, the ships made their way home, stopping in Chile. Monkey Puzzle Tree seeds were added to the expedition’s collection, and in the 1840’s, a British nursery was able to produce enough seeds to begin marketing Monkey Puzzle trees to the public.
The British and Irish wealthy were entranced with the unusual tree, and with good reason. The Monkey Puzzle can reach 70-130 feet in height, is fire-resistant, and can live for over a thousand years.
It soon became a status symbol to have a Monkey Puzzle in one’s ornamental garden. One of the first purchasers was a man named Sir William Molesworth, whose friend coined the name “monkey puzzle tree” by saying “It would puzzle a monkey to climb that!” In French, the tree is called a “monkey’s despair”. By the early 1900’s these intriguing plants began showing up in gardens in Seattle, and in the San Juan Islands.
However, we can find only three so far on San Juan Island. One is here at Harrison House Suites, one in a residential area of downtown Friday Harbor, and one at the San Juan Historical Society Museum.
Maybe you will find another Monkey Puzzle in your travels of San Juan Island – and if you do, we would love to hear about it!