Best-ever lockdown reading: Araucaria – The Monkey Puzzle by David Gedye
Reviewed by Andrew D. Hanson
Orakaria Press. 2019. 216 pp. Hardback. Illus. ISBN: 978-1-9160817-0-3. £25 + £5 shipping (UK price, other price on application). Available from: email@example.com
COVID-19 has bitten into health and healthcare, economies, education, social interactions, travel, and plans for the future. So nothing could be more welcome than a book that transports us to another world – especially to a forward-looking, plant-loving world from which we can bring back confidence, hope, and joy. David Gedye has written such a book. Its dry title – ‘Araucaria - The Monkey Puzzle’ gives little away. Its subtitle – ‘How the Monkey Puzzle Made Its Way from Chile to Europe and Became a Favourite of Victorian Gardeners’ – says rather more, but still doesn’t prepare the reader for the captivating, joined-up account of plant exploration, colonial history, English Landed Estates, expert horticulturists, early commercial horticulture, and botany that’s inside.
The thread running through the book and tying it together is personal to the author, made up of a fascination from childhood by the alien, symmetric beauty of the Monkey Puzzle tree and of a family connection (plus an associated story!). Gedye’s great-great-grandfather, Philip Frost (pictured above), played a key role in establishing the Monkey Puzzle in the U.K. when he was head gardener at Dropmore House in Buckinghamshire from 1832 until 1887. Frost was responsible for raising the noble tree featured on the book’s cover (see above). Dropmore was one of the U.K.’s grand estates and stately homes. The position of head gardener on such estates was highly prestigious and demanded great horticultural expertise and administrative ability – as well as soft skills such as the art of conversing with Queen Victoria, a frequent visitor to Dropmore (as the book relates). Chance reconnected Gedye with his famous forebear when his first job (as a plant pathologist) landed him in Buckinghamshire, in High Wycombe, just a few miles from Dropmore. Gedye then spent a half-century doggedly and enthusiastically tracking down the Frost-Dropmore-Monkey Puzzle connections, of which the outcome is the book.
The doggedness and enthusiasm that made the book possible are reflected in the thoroughness and accuracy of the botanical and historical scholarship. But Gedye wears his scholarship lightly and adds little touches of humor throughout. The only plant science error I found was a misstatement about the function of the cambium on p. 52.
Part historical account, part horticultural science, and part myth-busting detective story, and illustrated by over 100 plates, The Monkey Puzzle revisits a world transitioning at breakneck pace from sail to steam, from horses to railways, and from gardening customs and traditions to horticultural science, societies, magazines, and businesses. It was also a world shaped by infectious diseases that were not understood, and by huge changes in the jobs people did, in the types and sources of the foods they ate, and in who got educated and how. There are obvious parallels with today. But through all these challenges, people – first the rich, then public gardens and ordinary gardeners – planted Monkey Puzzles because they are wonders of nature and sources of delight. The people in Gedye’s book planted Monkey Puzzles not just, or even primarily, for themselves, but for generations to come. A gesture of confidence and hope for the future. Let’s follow their lead and keep the Monkey Puzzle thriving in our hearts, our gardens great and small, and in its natural home in Chile.
Lastly and importantly, the author published this book himself and, after covering printing and distribution costs, will donate aIl proceeds from sales to the International Conifer Conservation Program (ICCP). The ICCP https://www.rbge.org.uk/science-and-conservation/genetics-and-conservation/conifer-conservation/ aims to protect threatened conifer species and their habitats. Sadly, the Monkey Puzzle and its habitats are threatened. The book is available by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.