Archibald Menzies, portrait by Hannah Sarah Brightwen after Eden Upton Eddis, 1835, courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London

Clad in fire-resistant bark, the monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) thrives on the volcanic slopes of the Andes. To the Pehuenche people of Chile it is known as the Pehuén, a sacred tree whose spirit will provide them with nutritious seeds in times of famine. In the 19th century, a horticulturist in Cornwall commented that its strangely spiked branches were “enough to puzzle a monkey,” and the name stuck. But the name of the man who brought this tree to Britain is not quite so well remembered… nor is the astonishingly easy way in which the seeds found their way into his pocket.

Monkey puzzle trees in Parque Nacional Huerquehue, Chile

Archibald Menzies was born in 1754 near Aberfeldy. His family home is thought to have been a dwelling called Stix or Styx, a few miles to the west of Castle Menzies where his father, James, was head gardener. Archibald and his four brothers followed their father into horticulture: Archibald worked at Castle Menzies and then obtained a post at the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh, where his older brother, Robert, was principal gardener.

At that time, the Botanic Garden was situated at the top of Leith Walk, and its Superintendent was John Hope, Professor of Botany at Edinburgh University. Hope recruited Archibald to collect Highland plants on behalf of the botanists Dr John Fothergill and Dr William Pitcairn, who were renowned for their private plant collections in the south of England.

Hope also encouraged Menzies to study medicine at Edinburgh University. In the 18th century, medicine was closely allied with botany because so many remedies were derived from plants, and British naval surgeons often took the opportunity to collect plant specimens at their ports of call. Menzies emerged with enough knowledge to enlist as an assistant surgeon in 1782, on board HMS Nonsuch. He saw action in the Battle of the Saintes, when British and French ships clashed over territories in the Caribbean, and was then posted to Halifax in Nova Scotia in the wake of the American War of Independence.

By this time, Menzies was already plant-collecting. He despatched seeds from Barbados and Dominica to John Hope in Edinburgh, assuring him that Nova Scotia’s forests also held great potential. He wrote: “I already had two excursions into the woods and I cannot describe the pleasure I felt when surrounded with Kalmia angustifolia… Gaultheria procumbens, Arbutus uva-ursi, Pinus strobus, P. canadense and several other beautiful evergreens…”

When he returned to Britain in 1786, Menzies knew that he had found his calling. Impatient to be off again, he wrote to the eminent botanist Sir Joseph Banks, asking if he could find him another position as surgeon on the high seas. Well-travelled and well-connected, Banks was King George IIIs advisor on the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew; he was keen to send plant collectors to all corners of the Earth, because their discoveries enhanced the reputation of Britains botanic gardens.

Banks found Menzies a posting and just a month later he was back at sea, bound for Tierra del Fuego and the north-west coast of America. His captain was James Colnett, whose two merchant vessels, the Prince of Wales and the Princess Royal, were on a mission to expand and reinforce Britain’s trading connections. Menzies divided his time between his duties as surgeon and the pursuit of botany. Although it was comparatively easy to collect plants, getting them home alive was another matter entirely. In Tierra del Fuego he planted 20 specimens of Wintera aromatica in a tub and sent them back to Britain on another ship. Unfortunately, the vessel sank on its homeward voyage.

Returning to Britain in July 1789, Menzies settled down to catalogue his finds. But he still had a yearning to travel, and less than two years later he embarked on the most significant expedition of his long and productive life: a four-year voyage as a naturalist on board HMS Discovery, commanded by Captain George Vancouver. This time he was sailing east around the Cape of Good Hope, calling in at South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii before venturing up America’s west coast as far as Alaska.

Menzies was in raptures about the flora of South Africa. He wrote to Banks: “…whether I traversed the sandy scorching plains or clambered up the craggy ridges of mountains, every situation afforded to my mind something new or rare, for even many genera with which I was acquainted but by name here presented themselves to my view in full perfection.” Arriving in Australia (near the present-day city of Albany), Vancouver named King George’s Sound after the British monarch and Menzies went ashore to find a profusion of flowering plants, many of which were new to science. He also observed whales, seals, reptiles, and many birds including pelicans, penguins and black swans.

In New Zealand, Menzies was enchanted by the rich variety of ferns and mosses, and he also found New Zealand spruce trees, whose tall trunks provided ideal timber for ships’ repairs. In general, the coastlines that they were exploring were largely uninhabited, but this situation changed completely when they moved on to Tahiti and Hawaii. Just 13 years previously, in 1779, a misunderstanding between the British explorer Captain James Cook and some Hawaiian islanders had provoked them so seriously that they stabbed him to death, along with four of his officers. Vancouver had accompanied Cook on this expedition, and he was understandably wary of the risks.

Fortunately, on this visit, the encounters between islanders and naval officers were largely peaceful. Wandering through Hawaii’s botanical paradise, Menzies discovered two indigenous trees, including the Acacia koa (Acacia koa var. hawaiiensis). He also recorded the Hawaiian tree fern (Cibotium menziesii), which is one of 19 Hawaiian plant species that are named after him.

Hawaii’s volcanoes rise through a number of distinct vegetation zones, and Menzies was determined to experience them by climbing Mauna Loa (13,679 feet). Together with some of the ships’ officers, he battled altitude sickness and picked his way across razor-sharp lava beds. Menzies and his companions, Joseph Baker and George McKenzie, were the first Europeans to ascend this spectacular volcano.

As the Discovery cruised from California right up to Washington State, Vancouver Island (named in honour of the ship’s captain) and Cook Inlet in Alaska, exploring parties set off in small boats to navigate remote inlets and fjords. Menzies gazed up at forests of breathtakingly tall conifers, including coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis). He recorded the Douglas fir, and is remembered in its Latin name, Pseudotsuga menziesii; however, it was David Douglas, a fellow Scot, who brought the first seeds of the tree back to Britain.

Douglas Firs 

When the ship’s surgeon of Discovery was invalided home, Menzies was asked to take over his post. From then onwards Menzies fulfilled the dual roles of naturalist and surgeon, and it was to his credit that none of the crew died of scurvy under his care. When they anchored close to conifer forests he made quantities of spruce beer which was known to alleviate scurvy, and when they ran out of fresh vegetables he encouraged them to gather wild celery.

Menzies had struggled through inhospitable environments and risked his life in the name of botany, but one plant species found its way to him with hardly any effort at all. In March 1795 the Discovery called at Santiago, where the officers were invited to dinner by the Governor of Chile. A bowl of nuts was placed on the table during dessert, and Menzies slipped a handful into his pocket. These turned out to be the seeds of the monkey puzzle tree; they germinated successfully, and Menzies planted two seedlings at Kew Gardens.

After his maritime adventures, Menzies settled in London with a medical practice and married Janet Brown, whose brother Adam Brown was an officer on Discovery’s sister ship, HMS Chatham. In the early 19th century, subsequent plant collectors, including Scotsman James Macrae, visited Chile and brought back enough monkey puzzle seed to satisfy enthusiastic gardeners, who planted it as a specimen tree in parks and gardens up and down the country.



“Menzies divided his time between his duties as surgeon and the pursuit of botany.”

“He made quantities of spruce beer which was known to alleviate scurvy.”



James McCarthy (2008) Monkey Puzzle Man: Archibald Menzies, Plant Hunter

The Gardens Trust blog (

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