Home & Garden Columns

Green Neighbors: The Geographic History of the Bunya-Bunya Tree

By Ron Sullivan
Tuesday January 23, 2007

If Chez Panisse were to serve up a menu to match its guardian bunya-bunya, it would include roast haunch of free-range sauropod and a salad of braised organic tree ferns. Maybe some wood-roasted hearts of sago palm and a gingko fruit crème brulee for dessert. If it ever gets around to producing its infamously huge cones—I’ve never seen the big ones here—the bunya-bunya’s seeds are edible, too. How about it, Alice? 

That oddly bifurcated individual of the species Araucaria bidwillii on Shattuck Avenue, with its scaly sharp leaves and rumpled trunk, is a member of one of the planet’s oldest tree families, the Araucariacieae. These trees were around to see the rise and fall of the great dinosaurs and their kin, when we mammals were barely skulking around on all fours. They can’t quite be said to be native to California or even North America because the continent, never mind the state, didn’t exist yet.  

We can find three species easily in the Bay Area: bunya-bunya; monkey-puzzle (A. araucana), and good old Norfolk Island pine (A. heterophylla), sold as Christmas trees and indoor plants. Bunya-bunya does OK indoors, too, and for all I know so does monkey-puzzle, but they’d need lots of elbow room with those sharp scales sticking out in seemingly random directions.  

Norfolk Island pine—named for the Norfolk Island in the south Pacific, not the Norfolk naval base in Virginia—prospers outdoors, as you can see by its representatives towering over other trees in the yards of old Victorian houses and down on Broadway in Mosswood park.  

Some araucarias were here, though, before there was a here here. The Petrified Forest in Arizona is bejeweled by the transformed corpses of monkey-puzzle trees. Those long-gone trees have suffered more than a sea change and into some thing rich and strange indeed, but maybe not more strange than they were in life.  

Fossils of various araucarias occur all over; they’re the sort of thing filmmakers like to have as backdrops for dinosaur epics. The PBS dinosaur series that ran a few years ago was filmed in New Caledonia. Of the world’s 19 araucaria species, 13 are found there. This little island way off Australia has about 3000 indigenous plant species—it’s like a mad god’s conservatory. It has, or had until humans arrived, lots of very odd reptile and bird species too. It shares araucarias with Australia, New Zealand and South America because they all used to be part of one big happy supercontinent, Gondwanaland. South America was on one shore, Australia (more or less) on the other.  

Some of these species are so old they rode the continents around like Huck Finn on his raft; others descended from those species in nature’s experimental labs, islands isolated from each other and from continents. New Caledonia is part of a huge land mass that ripped itself from Australia nearly 90 million years ago, and is now mostly underwater and on its way to a reunion with South America. Mother Nature, mad scientist that she is, raises her creatures from the available ancestral material. These odd trees were part of that. They prospered and diversified in a great geographic swath that now reaches across the Pacific.  

Naturalists used to wonder about how some marsupials—opossums, for example—and some “primitive” plants like araucarias conquered the vast oceanic barrier between Australia and South America. The answer, that the barrier hadn’t always been there and the lands had floated through it and recombined several times before and since, was more of a surprise than even fantasy writers had imagined. How very strange to think of such impermanence of solid land, and such persistence of fleeting life!  

Strange also to think of animals’ preceding plants in the chronology of ancient life. Maybe most of us are swayed by the early influence of reading or hearing the Book of Genesis, but the evident fact is that those dinosaurs and lots of other animals, including our mammalian ancestors, lived before flowering plants and long before grasses. What the dinosaurs roamed through and dined on were forests of araucarias, cycads (like sago “palms”), and ginkgoes, with understories of ferns, horsetails, and maybe a few remaining clubmosses. There were more species of each of these; the gingko we know, for example, is the lone survivor of a big family.  

It also seems that the birds that perch in the Chez Panisse tree are descendants of dinosaurs, and maybe the tree finds their presence familiar compared to that of the upstart bipeds below. Roast emu or ostrich might, in a pinch, be taxonomically basal enough to substitute for that sauropod dish. Certainly it would be easier for a forager to rustle up.  


Photograph: Ron Sullivan 

A mammal’s-eye view of the bunya-bunya at Chez Panisse.