When I was a boy, there was a monkey puzzle tree in a yard that we passed when my father drove my mother and I from our farm near Mayger to Longview, Washington, to see my grandmother. The conversation went something like this:

“Wow Dad, look at that crazy tree, what kinda tree is that?”

“That’s a monkey tree, son.”

“But where are the monkeys?”

“Look really hard.”

“Dad I’m really looking hard, and I don’t see any monkeys.”

“You’ll just have to look harder next time.” he said as the tree faded in the distance.

The monkey puzzle tree, Araucaria araucana, is an evergreen conifer native to central and southern Chile and western Argentina. It’s the National Tree of Chile and a symbol of pride in the population. The tree can grow to 8 feet in diameter at its base and 170 feet in height in its natural state, but in its home range, it is threatened by logging and poor forest management. Increasingly, the greatest threat to the species is volcanic activity that triggers catastrophic fires in the protected stands of the Corporación Nacional Forestal (Chile National Forest Corp.). Many of the biggest of these trees are 1000-plus years old.

Named for a comment by a Victorian matron benefactor of the British Royal Botanic Garden: “To climb that, would puzzle a monkey,” the stately tree, with its strangely whorled, pointy leaves and distinctive bark is widely distributed across Northwest neighborhoods. It has become a Northwest nursery staple.

So, how did these trees become so ever-present in Northwest yards?

The 1890s saw a “rash” of “World’s Fairs,” not the least of those being in Chicago and St. Louis. This, quite understandably, created some civic jealousy among emerging American cities of the time, and Portland was certainly one of those. The economic depressions of the 1870s and 1880s were over, the railroads came to town, the mills were hiring, and Portland’s ascendant merchant class was ready to showoff its shiny new city. A partnership was formed, and shares were sold in what was to become the “Lewis and Clark Centennial and American Pacific Exposition and Oriental Fair.” That being a real mouthful, journalists of the time began to refer to it as the “Lewis and Clark Exposition.” Thankfully, that stuck.

According to newspaper accounts of the time, the Exposition Commission leased most of what is now northwest Portland, and broke ground in 1901. The transformation of the site was massive. An artificial lake and reflecting pool were created, and thousands of square feet of wooden framed stucco exhibit halls and pavilions were constructed in the Spanish Renaissance style reminiscent of Northern African buildings with arches and swooping roofs and lots of metallic paint adornments. One local wag was heard to call them “Stick Castles.” The only real permanent structures left after the event were the Fairmont Hotel, which is still present in a very changed form, the National Cash Register Building (now McMenamins St. Johns Theater & Pub) and the Forestry Building, a log hall constructed of giant Douglas firs. It was destroyed in a spectacular fire in 1964.

The biggest new technology hit of the exposition was incandescent electric lights. Strung on decorative poles about the grounds, the lights reflected on the pond to give a festive, twinkling air to the warm summer nights. Visitors swarmed the place by the trolley and riverboat load.

To bring us back to the monkey puzzle tree story; one of these buildings was leased by the government of Chile and became the Chile Pavilion. To help promote Chile’s economy, the government built a nursery to produce thousands of cloned starts of the national tree to give away at the pavilion. Since the expo was a huge hit, thousands were given away in the first two months, and the Chileans had to commission a ship to bring thousands more. It is arguable that nearly all of the monkey puzzle trees in Northwest yards are either these very starts (at 100-plus, they’d just be toddlers now) or their descendants.

To this day, every time I pass a monkey puzzle tree, I can’t help but smile, even laugh. If you listen close, you may hear me mutter: “Where are the monkeys, Dad?”

Ron Baldwin is a musician, photographer and writer living in Chinook, Wash.

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