Everyone recognises the monkey puzzle tree or pehúen (Araucaria araucana) from the dry foothills of the Andes way down south between Chile and Argentina, but may not have come across its more northerly relative from the Mata Atlântica.

THE Araucarias are charismatic, relict, evergreen conifers from the southern hemisphere, with whorled branches bearing spiral-arranged leaves that may be needle-like, triangular or scale-like, and small male, and large female cones, usually on separate trees.

Members of the genus Araucaria in the Pacific Islands and Australia include A. cunningham or hoop pine, A. heterophylla (the Norfolk Island one) and A. bidwillii (the bunya pine). The recently discovered Wollemi pine, from southeast Australia, is classed in this plant group as well. 

Ocean-hopping across to South America brings you face to trunk with both the familiar monkey puzzle and its nearest living relative, Araucaria angustifolia from Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, which differs mainly in the width of the leaves – hence its scientific name. Yet none of these species is a true ‘pine’.

READ MORE: Axe breakers of the Gran Chaco

Their common ancestry dates to a time when Australia, Antarctica and South America were linked by land. All three continents were once part of the supercontinent known as Gondwanaland that began to drift apart some 300 million years ago.

Forestry Journal:  

A. angustifolia bears some resemblance to its cousin A. araucana further south in Patagonia. Its common or colloquial names in English include the candelabra tree and the Paraná pine, plus several others in Spanish, Portuguese, Guaraní and more localised tongues. 

Although called Paraná pine in English after the main mighty river between Argentina and Brazil and/or the Brazilian state, it is certainly not from the Pinus genus.

Araucaria angustifolia is a tall, evergreen tree with a narrow, pyramidal habit when young, becoming more dome-shaped with age. Thick, triangular leaves, 3–6 cm long with sharp edges and tips, are arranged spirally on branchlets with those at the outer ends tending to be tufted. Male and female cones are usually borne on separate trees; the male ones are oblong and up to 18 cm long while the female cones are globular in shape, 18–25 cm in diameter and remain maturing on the tree for up to three years after pollination.

The seeds are sizeable and edible – when toasted, they are a popular and tasty winter street-food nibble locally and come recommended by this author.

Mature Paraná pines are distinctive, with a bare, columnar trunk crowned with a flattened layer or umbrella of whorled branches. The clusters of needle-like leaves at the ends of these branches gave rise to the species’ other common name, the candelabra tree.

Instantly recognisable, this imposing species has many uses and is popular as a timber tree for its long straight trunks with the few if any low branches making it sned-free. It is of major economic value for its wood that is easy to work for interior applications such as veneer, furniture and flooring and yields long-fibre cellulose for high-quality paper products. 

Forestry Journal:

In tree collections: Although becoming scarce in the wild, with its spreading branches and characteristic architectural candelabra look, this tree is not uncommon in collections and arboreta in the UK and is sold by niche nurseries.

This appearance affords the species a degree of protection in botanic gardens and aboreta; according to the Global Survey of Ex-situ Conifer Collections, the Paraná pine is present in 89 ex-situ collections worldwide.

The National Pinetum at Bedgebury in Kent boasts specimens.

In forestry: This is one of those fortunate endemic trees that was successfully brought into cultivation as it became scarcer in its native environment – initially to grow for its commercial timber value. In part, that may have been its saving grace. 
Recognising wild stocks of this valuable timber tree were getting scarce, forward-looking forestry companies discovered it could be raised in nurseries, grown in plantations and selectively bred for the best commercial traits. 

It grows well in the mainly red laterite soils of its native home that are fairly fertile, moist but well-drained and preferably slightly acidic. 

In forest nurseries it is sown in seedbeds as soon as the large seeds are ripe, although cuttings of vertical shoot tips in midsummer will root too.

Old traditions die hard and the age-old belief that these trees and other food plants will only be successful if planted in certain phases of the moon persist to this day amongst the local population.

The Paraná pine has been established successfully as a viable forestry crop across the region. Yet forest nurseries are now serving a vital extra role in raising trees of this and other natives for replanting degraded key habitat areas too.

Forestry Journal:

The Atlantic Forest – or Mata Atlântica in Portuguese – is or was a vast rolling treed tract in South America stretching along the Atlantic coast of Brazil from Rio Grande do Norte state in the northeast to Rio Grande do Sul in the south and westwards inland as far as eastern Paraguay and the Province of Misiones in the north-east of Argentina, where the region is dubbed the Selva Misionera.

The Atlantic Forest is a patchwork of several eco-regions: seasonal moist and dry broad-leaf tropical forests; tropical and subtropical grasslands, savannas and grasslands; hills and coastal mangrove forests. It is a biodiversity hotspot.
Araucaria angustifolia is the principal primary forest species in this eco-region, with individuals regularly emerging umbrella-like from the canopy at heights of 45 metres or more. 

However, depending on whose stats you opt for, around 90 per cent of the original range of roughly a million square kilometres has been deforested. 

The Paraná pine has been prized as Brazil’s ‘most important timber tree’ since the 1500s, but this has driven devastating deforestation.

Yet in three tree generations from the beginning of the 20th century, almost all of A. angustifolia’s original territory was lost to unsustainable commercial logging, encroaching agriculture and extensive stands of exotic timber crops. Because of this, the species’ conservation status internationally was upgraded from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered in 2006.

In neighbouring Argentina and Paraguay, this tree was also overharvested until very recently. But things are reverting – slowly. 

Recognising the plight of the Paraná pine, the Brazilian government banned exports of its timber in 2001 and placed it on a list of the country’s threatened species. 
The chain of Atlantic Forest South-East Reserves, in the Brazilian states of Paraná and São Paulo, contain some of the best and most extensive examples of this tree-covered ecosystem in the country. These 25 protected areas, covering some 470,000 ha, are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In Brazil, one of the numerous conservation NGOs working there is the Global Trees Campaign, based in the UK at Kew, which is encouraging replanting of both the emblematic Paraná pine and a wide range of associated native tree species to reforest places.

In Paraguay, the Mbaracayu and San Rafael Lagoon National Parks – two of the most important blocks of Atlantic Forest remaining in the landlocked nation – have been recognised by UNESCO as biosphere reserves. WWF has awarded the Paraguayan government with the Leaders for the Living Planet Award in recognition of its efforts to conserve the Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest.

Across the river, in the Argentine province of Misiones, things are also looking up for the candelabra tree and its associated rainforest type. A chain of protected areas now exists and are linked up in conjunction with large forestry holdings coming onside to create green corridors or bridges of plantations from one remaining native forest patch to the next. And then the Iguazú National Park with its associated falls is mirrored by its namesake on the Brazilian bank. 

Forestry Journal:

So although there is a long way to go, things are looking brighter for the iconic Paraná pine or candelabra tree in the wild as a beacon of hope for safeguarding and restoring the Atlantic Forest biome and its associated fauna and flora across the three national political frontiers.

Safeguarding surviving stocks of this charismatic tree in the wild in protected areas is vital but the next steps include reforesting with a mixture of the native trees – not just Paraná pine. Perhaps the most challenging long-term one of all is changing the human mindset from one of exploitation and overharvesting to one of sustainable management of this and other natural resources.