The distinctive and beautiful araucaria (Araucaria araucana), more commonly known as the monkey puzzle tree, is one of the world’s most enduring species of tree. It grows naturally only in the cordillera of Neuquén Province and at similar latitudes in Chile, where it favours impoverished volcanic soils at altitudes between 600m and 1800m. This prehistoric survivor has been around for more than one hundred million years.
Araucarias grow incredibly slowly, though they can live for over a thousand years. Young trees grow in a pyramid shape, but after about a hundred years they start to lose their lower branches and assume their trademark umbrella appearance – mature specimens can reach 45m in height. Their straight trunks are covered by panels of thick bark that provide resistance to fire. The female trees produce huge, head-size cones filled with up to two hundred fawn-coloured pine nuts called piñones, some 5cm long, and rich in proteins and carbohydrates.
Known to the Mapuche as the pehuén, the tree was worshipped as the daughter of the moon. Legend has it that there was a time when the Mapuche, though they adored the pehuén, never ate its piñones, believing them to be poisonous. This changed, however, during a terrible famine, when their god, Ngüenechén, saved them from starvation by sending a messenger to teach them both the best way of preparing these nutritious seeds (roasting them in embers or boiling), and of storing them (burying them in the earth or snow). Piñones became the staple diet of tribes in the area (principally the Pehuenche, named after their dependence on the tree), and have been revered by the Mapuche ever since.