On one crispy Florida summer day, I stood out in front of my home talking with a few landscapers about the most bizarre tree in our neighborhood, a Monkey Puzzle. I was estimating whether it would hit my century-old home if it ever fell.
“If the wind blew right, it would just miss my house. But what are the chances …” we carried on. “But if lighting hit the tree? But if a hurricane hit? Or a tornado?” We laughed with our conversation turning away from Monkey Puzzle when the tree made three thunderous thumping sounds.
“See! There’s a spell on that tree.” I told them, as I’d just finished sharing one of the tree’s legends with them. It was a quieting moment. Should I have not said it out loud?
While there are several variations of the spell, the one that haunts this particular tree the best is about the devil incarnate, a naked Jack Skellington, who sits atop a fiery nest at the apex of this pyramidal conifer. Jack, when he’s around, is cradled in Monkey Puzzle’s barb-wired branches. Within this perch, the tips of his skeletal fingers fire barely visible, orange discharges into a perfectly blue sky.
Jack doesn’t sit there all the time though, but for bits and whiles at this time of the year, long enough to spook those who can see — or in our case, hear — him. Everyone around Monkey Puzzle must be quiet while Jack’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.
So about those thumps?
Monstrously big, pineapple-shaped pine-like cones. About 15 pounds a piece, hitting the ground (and, I’m told, one time, a girl scout).
No doubt it was Jack in that tree unlatching these enormous pine cones, 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 itself was insisting on quiet, warning us, “I control Jack.”
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 tree is this.
Long before slash pine and the Pinus genus in general covered thousands of acres in central Florida, and provided our area with its initial turpentine industry, Monkey Puzzle trees, our “living fossil,” dotted the landscape. Their knife-like, triangular leaves tightly knit around its trunk and branches evolved not to discourage monkeys, but rather to deter “the grazing dinosaurs of the Mesozoic era of 250 million years ago.”
On a side note: In the 20th century, those knives were useful for keeping away people too. Monkey Puzzle, the one across the street from me, survived the ravages of the turpentine industry in the central Florida area apparently because no one ever had or could afford the tools to cut a tree like this. Or, they just ignored and went around it. In either event, it grew.
The rise of broad-leaf trees during the Cretaceous Period is the primary reason Monkey Puzzle trees are not too widespread. It also makes a terrible landscape tree, unless you have dozens of acres of property and need a naturally deadly fence.
This fire-resistant 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 [i] and a pretty new home.
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.
A prehistoric tree, an endangered tree. Monkey Puzzle tends to become invisible in a landscape, which is surely why Jack 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 actually do try to look for one, like the one across the street from me, you’ll see that it’s quite the unusual tree.
If you look up close, sometimes you can see the biggest birds around flying aloft Monkey Puzzle, then stopping for a rest: red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, and osprey. From the ground they must have looked like dancing devils to our ancestors; they must’ve looked like Jack.
[i] 1 W Lemon Street, the Girl Scout house, formerly known as the Zentmeyer home; now known as the Summerlin house.
Originally published: August 19, 2017.