The Araucariaceae family contains only two genera: the Araucaria, containing about 25 species, and the Agathis, with 12. Most of these trees or shrubs are native to the Southern Hemisphere. All look prehistoric, like plants common to the age of the dinosaurs, which they are. They flourished during the Mesozoic Period and are little changed in appearance from fossilized remains of that time.
We can see one of these prehistoric trees in the city of Napa at Fuller Park. It is the Bunya-Bunya tree, located in the lawn, near the sidewalk on Seminary Street, about midway between Laurel and Oak Streets. It is a large, imposing tree with a thick, straight trunk over 50 feet tall. The foliage is dark, glossy green. The leaves vary in length from 1/2 inch to 3 inches. They are shiny, leathery and dangerously sharp-pointed. It is not a friendly tree to prune or to clean up under. Fortunately it does not drop a lot of leaves or branches.
The Bunya-Bunya tree is native to tropical Queensland, Australia, and grows well in the valleys and warm areas off the west coast of the Americas. Some fine specimens are found in Southern California, but I have only seen the one tree in Napa. This tree is not desirable for average home gardens. It grows too large, up to 80 feet tall, and can produce large cones resembling pineapples in shape and weighing 15 pounds or more. The danger of one of these falling on someone’s head deters most landscape planners from recommending them. However, I have never heard of anyone being hit by a falling cone, and Jacobson (Ref. 12) says that only female trees bear cones that disintegrate upon maturity. Queensland Aborigines prize the trees for the seeds from the cones, which are twice as big as almonds, delicious when roasted and an important food source for them.
The Bunya-Bunya tree is closely related to another tree with similar leaves, the Monkey Puzzle tree (A. araucana) from Chile, so named because its spiny leaves would surely puzzle any monkey attempting to climb it. But the Araucaria probably most familiar to us is the Norfolk Island pine (A. heterophylla). It is tender to cold but is very popular as a potted plant for indoor or patio use. The foliage is also sharp and pointed but not so leathery and is only 1/4 to 1/2 inch long, giving the plant an attractive, feathery look.