I stood out front the house talking with some landscapers about the most bizarre tree in our neighborhood, estimating whether it would hit my century-old home if it ever fell. We laughed and carried on about our whimsical conversation when the tree made three loud thumping sounds.
“See! There’s a spell on that tree.” I told them, as I’d just finished sharing the legend with them of the Monkey Puzzle tree. It was a quieting moment.
While there are several variations of the legend, the one I like the best is about the devil incarnate, who sits atop a fiery nest at the apex of this pyramidal, fire-resistant tree, not all the time, but he sits there for bits and whiles, long enough to spook those who see him. Everyone around Monkey Puzzle must be quiet while the devil’s there lest they attract his attention and grow a monkey’s tail for three years, during which time all manner of bad luck would befall the ruckster.[i]
So what were those thumps?
Monstrously big, pineapple-shaped pine-like cones. About 15 pounds a piece, hitting the ground.
No doubt it was the devil in that tree trying to shut us down, telling us not to speak of its ancientness, its expansive survival, and its substantial lore. It was as if the tree was insisting on quiet, warning us.
I made a deal with that tree shortly after this incident to tell its story anyway, but in the hushed process of writing. The story of this particular tree is this.
Long before slash pine covered acres of downtown Davenport, Florida, and provided our area with its initial turpentine industry, Monkey Puzzle trees, our “living fossil,” dotted our landscape. Their knife-like, triangular leaves evolved not to discourage monkeys, but rather to deter “the grazing dinosaurs of the Mesozoic era of 250 million years ago.”
The rise of broad-leaf trees during the Cretaceous Period is the primary reason Monkey Puzzle trees are not widespread. It also makes a terrible landscape tree, unless you have dozens of acres of property and need a naturally deadly fence.
This tree, however, the one across the street from me, is not on acres of land. It’s wedged in the smallest space possible, about 20 square feet between a 1925 “Girl Scout” house [ii] and a pretty new home.
The Monkey Puzzle, a native of Chile, can live to be a thousand years old. This one, standing at about 150 feet, could easily be a hundred, two, maybe three hundred years old. Without a shadow of a doubt, though, it was growing long before the Girl Scout house was built. Monkey Puzzle also survived of ravages of the turpentine industry on our landscape primarily because no one ever had the tools to cut a tree like this and so it grew.
Today, it appears to be the tallest tree in our region, but it doesn’t stand out. Monkey Puzzle tends to become invisible in a landscape, which is surely why the devil likes hanging out there. Not even lightning bothers to find this tree.
Arborists say that the tree is so open in habit you could almost look at it and not see it. But if you do actually try to look for it, while driving east on Davenport Boulevard (County Road 547), you can see that it really stands out. It stands out far above all the other trees in our ridge-top community.
If you look up close, sometimes you can see the biggest birds around stopping aloft Monkey Puzzle for a rest: red-tailed hawks, vultures, and osprey. From the ground they must have looked like devils to our ancestors.
A prehistoric tree, an endangered tree. Davenport must be one special place for a tree like this one to have made its home here.
[i] In Darhlene language, a ruckster is one who causes a disturbance or commotion.
[ii] 1 W Lemon Street; formerly known as the Zentmeyer home; now known as the Summerlin house.