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Eastsound's Monkey Puzzle tree cut down

The monkey puzzle tree being limbed before it is cut down. - Meredith Griffith photo
The monkey puzzle tree being limbed before it is cut down.
— image credit: Meredith Griffith photo

It's known for many things: being the national tree of Chile; living for hundreds of years; sporting branches that look like reptiles.

On Orcas, the monkey puzzle tree on North Beach Road is known simply as that really cool tree that has been in town "forever."

Owners of the tropical evergreen, which is native to south-central Chile and west central Argentina, were forced to cut it down last week.

"We did everything possible to save the tree," said Caroline Crawford, who bought the property with her husband Charles six years ago. "We've spent thousands of dollars trying to save it. When the sidewalk was put in, it changed the water flow. It couldn't drain properly ... it has a fungus in its roots."

Radio Shack currently rents the building behind the large tree, and Caroline said her insurance company considered it a "great liability" because it was dead and could fall over in a windstorm.

"We were in danger of losing our insurance," Caroline said.

In 2009, the State Department of Agriculture diagnosed the tree with a root fungus that plugs up the water-transporting vessels, preventing water from reaching the leaves. It can remain dormant until drought stresses its host. It has infected several trees in the region, even causing their deaths, according to arborist Herlwyn Lutz, who consulted with the Crawfords for several years on the monkey puzzle's condition.

"They are not a very popular tree, but they aren't that hard to grow here," said John Evans, who owns Evans Farm Nursery in Olga. "We have been doing this for 20 years, and we've probably picked up three for people over all this time. Generally we have to go to Seattle to get them. The reason they are not popular is because they have a cone, which is about the size of a football, and it is extremely heavy. They can be very dangerous ... but they are a fascinating tree. They are prehistoric. I think they were on the planet when the dinosaurs were here."

On Dec. 9, Tim's Tractor Service limbed the monkey puzzle tree, then cut it down to the base of its trunk. The gazebo that was built around it is staying, and the tree is now about table height.

"We built the gazebo because everyone wanted to sit under it, and they were getting hit by pine cones," Caroline said.

About the tree

The monkey puzzle tree is part of Orcas brothers Jim and Fred Nicol's family history.

Their dad, Dave, was born on Orcas in 1894. He built the family's first house where Bilbo's Restaurant is now.

"My dad planted two monkey puzzle trees before the second world war on that property," Jim said. "They were transplanted in 1946 (to where they are now) when they were about six or eight feet tall."

Dave built another house on that property, where the boys grew up. One of the trees died, but the other flourished, growing to 60 feet tall.

Jim says he has no idea why his dad chose to plant monkey puzzle trees, but the prickly evergreen has always been special to his family.

"It makes me sick (that it's being cut down)," Jim said. "I grew up in that place."

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