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‘They look like a herd of dinosaurs’: The weird, reptilian trees that became an obsession


Dan Tucker has a thing for trees, going back to his upbringing here in the Northwest, surrounded by lush Douglas fir forest. 

He gradually began to tell the trees apart: a Douglas fir versus a Lodgepole pine versus a Western hemlock. But there was one type of tree that looked really different — like, freakishly different. 

"I remember when I was a kid walking around in Olympia or Seattle or something with my dad, and he pointed one out and said, 'people call that a monkey puzzle tree because the scales are all sharp and they all point down the branch, so if a monkey climbed down the branch he couldn’t climb back up again,'" Tucker said. 

Credit Joshua Tucker
Dan Tucker, in the monkey puzzle forests of Chile.

Those deep-green scales line long, tail-like branches and give the tree a decidedly reptilian look. 

“They look like a herd of dinosaurs or something,” Tucker says, noting that the trees evolved during the Jurassic period, possibly to protect themselves from hungry brachiosauruses. 

“They basically haven’t changed much since then,” he said. “They just have an ancient, powerful spirit that I feel like spoke to me somehow.” 

Dan became fixated on these trees — you might say obsessed. He wanted to see what they looked like in their primeval forest habitat. He wondered what their edible seeds tasted like. And he was curious whether he could collect enough seeds to plant a grove of monkey puzzle trees on his own land on San Juan Island. 

That obsession would lead him to the highlands of Chile on trip where he would literally bleed for his seed collection. Click the “listen” link above to hear the tale.
(Watch this video, courtesy of Dan and Joshua Tucker, of a local Chliean man harvesting nuts from a monkey puzzle tree.)

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.