A while back, I wrote about the fun I'd had, germinating Monkey Puzzle (Araucaria araucana ) seeds, and yesterday I received the following comment from Tom:
"I developed an interest in Monkey Puzzle trees a few years ago when my mother, visiting me in WA from MT noticed one on my block.
I eventually purchased one from a local nursery and planted it at my Westport home and feed and water it well and it's growing at a rate I've never seen from a tree. I now would like to grow some from seeds and have learned of the male and female trees and how to identify them, but how does one know if the female tree has been pollinated and the seeds are viable?
Before we get started on the topic, let's do some energetic waving to Tom, all the way over there on the west coast of America, which is about as far away from sunny South Oxfordshire as you can get ("within the northern hemisphere").
Now to his question: firstly regarding the viability of the seeds.
Seeds only remain viable for a short while after they are shed, so buying seeds (especially off the internet) means you usually get stale old ones, which have very poor viability. It's always best to collect them yourself if you can - just make a note of every Monkey Puzzle tree in your area, and if you know the owner, ask them to let you know when the seeds start to fall: and if they are in a public place, keep visiting them around autumn time, and look underneath the tree for the fallen seeds.
Why the fallen ones? Viable seeds are fat, and heavy: they fall to the ground under their own weight. Unviable seeds are light, and stay within the cone for a longer time. So scrabble around in the leaf litter under the tree, and look for the fattest, palest-coloured, heaviest ones, and grab as many as you reasonably can. Don't bother with thin, flattened ones. In fact, look at them as though they were edible (which, actually, they are!): which ones would you buy to eat? The plump, shiny, nice-looking ones. Not the dark, wrinkled, sad-looking ones.
Now for Tom's pollination question: he has learned the difference between male and female trees, but I'll run though it again here for everyone else's benefit.
Right, how do you tell if you have a male tree, or a female tree? Brace yourself for some botany: Monkey Puzzle trees are normally dioecious, which means that some trees are "male", and some are "female".
I say that with quotes, because it's not the tree itself which is male or female, what I mean is that some trees produce only male flowers, while some only produce female flowers... but either way, it means that you will only get seed if you have a "female" tree, and if there is a "male" tree somewhere nearby.
Having said that, some Monkey Puzzle trees do have both male and female flowers on the same tree, the technical term for which is monoecious: so self-pollination is possible, although usually, in these situations, the flowers open at very slightly different times, so that you may still need a nearby male-flowered tree in order to get good seed production.
How can you tell the difference?
Male flowers are long fat cones which dangle from the tips of the branches. Female flowers are upright, stout pineapple-shaped things. Simple! But it's impossible to tell if a tree is "male" or "female" until the flowers appear, and this tends not to happen until the tree is quite mature, which can be as long as 30 years. And of course, even if it is a female tree, there is no guarantee that seeds will be produced, if the flowers are not pollinated. Not to mention the fact that all these flowers are produced high up in the canopy of a tree in excess of 30 years old - and they are fast-growing trees! - so you will probably struggle to see the flowers in any case.
So, on to Tom's final question about pollination, it's a simple one: the tree won't produce any seeds if it has not been pollinated.
So any seeds which you find will be viable, as long as they are fresh, plump, shiny and generally nice-looking.
There you go, Tom, hope that helps!