Araucaria is a family of trees that grow in the South Pacific region and neighbouring countries. I grew up familiar with two species, the bunya pine and the Norfolk Island pine; hoop pine is also common in Queensland. Bunya (shown in the first picture above, taken in the Bunya Mountains) is unmistakeable, with its savage prickly leaves and its cones, spherical and football-sized, which sometimes fall on cars parked underneath the trees. (The nuts have a delicate flavour which is much prized.) Norfolk Island pine and hoop pine are similar to one another, but the twigs of the first resemble toothbrushes, the second are more like toilet brushes.
There is at least one more Australian araucaria, the Captain Cook pine, that I saw in the botanic gardens in Melbourne last year. I described it in my diary as “like a Norfolk Island pine with a curl at the end of its moustaches”.
Norfolk Island pines are common in Portugal. (There is at least one bunya there as well, in the gardens at Monserrate.) But the only common araucaria in Britain is a Chilean tree which is referred to, for obvious reasons, as the monkey puzzle tree (see the second picture above).
It was for this reason that my favourite crossword compiler, John Graham, took the pseudonym “Araucaria”. His puzzles appear regularly in the Guardian, and delight his large following throughout Britain and beyond.
Yesterday, reading the paper in the common room, I noted that it contained an Araucaria puzzle, but by random chance I didn’t buy a copy of the Guardian to take home. Today I read on the BBC news website that Araucaria had used the crossword to announce that he is suffering from oesophagal cancer, and the doctors have told him that it can’t be treated.
But it’s not farewell yet. Today’s paper has an item on the front page (except that the reporter got the headline wrong) about this, in which he declares that he will continue setting puzzles while he can.