Orakaria Press. 2019. 216 pp. Hardback. Illus. ISBN: 978-1-9160817-0-3. £25 + £5 shipping (UK price, other price on application). Available from: orakariapress@gmail.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 orakariapress@gmail.com