Green cones, white flowers, clean verdant leaves, backlit, life energy flowing through the veins and around the margins. Ancient species, a bridge between the fossil and the new. From Africa, cradle of life, floating over the ocean. At home in the island, the keys, the cays, the long coast and waterways of la florida, still older than the orange or the cane. Impatiently, My son is waiting in the background for me to make lunch. Buttonwood thoughts push out the world.  Flowery words for flowery trees. Who knew that buttonwood flowered? 

This tree had a video that is now lost. It’s an old tree. Tortured. It’s, inexplicably, in a Japanese pot. I put it there of course. It fits, though. This tree could be older than the USA. Or as young as me. It’s hard to tell. Many bonsai practitioners tend to overestimate a trees age. I have a hard time giving a guesstimate like that because I’ve seen the process that creates those amazing twists and turns and deadwood that a Florida buttonwood can exhibit. The species name, conocarpus erectus, means, literally cone-like fruit/seed and upright growth. 

Florida buttonwoods on battered seashores and barrier islands tend to defy the second part. If you grew one in an ideal condition though, it would be a great contender for telephone pole production, they grow that straight. And fast too, you can get a six inch trunk in five years. Let me paint a picture of how we get these twisted trees: We have a seedling, new and strong, full of promise and vinegar, pushing through the coral and shell littered sand on No Name Key, FLA. Bill, a drunk expat from Leeds, wanders out to take a piss in the ocean, under the warm tropical night sky.  He takes his pose, and his left boot heel steps on our brave seedling. His eyes search the heavens as his pee sprays the surf. First insult. But the buttonwood isn’t so easily defeated. Ten years pass, the seedling is a young tree, strong and growing. The bottom might have a few twists and extra roots but the trunk is straight as a mast on a pirate ship. In the hot Gulf Of Mexico waters comes a tropical storm, bearing down on the Keys. This is the third named storm of the season, we will call it TS Cullen. At the last moment, Just before landfall on No Name Key, Cullen is upgraded to a Category one hurricane. Our young tree gets brown over. It has strong roots but that full canopy on that straight trunk act like a sail, and the sand it’s growing in has no real structure. Down it goes. The trunk snaps in two, half the root system is in the air, washed of the sand by the driving hurricane wind and rain. Second insult. But the tree, a buttonwood, will throw out roots from anywhere on its trunk. Everywhere the bark hits the ground, you’ll have roots, even from the broken off top. That’s right, the top piece will root into the ground where ever it touches too. Now we have two trees. This process continues, abuse from tourists, from crocodiles (yes, we have salt water crocs in Florida) from bulldozers and boats and storms. Growing up and getting knocked down. Insults and injuries. Eventually the trees, which should look like a tree farm growing building lumber, are laying all over themselves like a midden heap of femurs, ribs, pelvis, and skulls. It’s from these bramble like thickets that the best collected buttonwood bonsai come from. Time to remove the wire on this bad boy. 

See how the tree, at the end of the wiring, grows? Straight up. And since we have a lack of crocs and tourists in my nursery to do natures work (well, I do get tourists who visit Orlando on holiday and make side trips to my nursery, but they don’t step on the trees…..yet) I must wire that movement into the branches. But first, a quick bonsai horticulture lesson. 

When you allow a tree to flower (on trees that flower on branch tips) that branch is done elongating and developing. The growing tip must now start again behind the bloom or inflorescence spike. 

This branch has an intact growing tip, with all the auxins concentrated there. 

It’s difficult to stop a tree from flowering but you can halt the process by removing those flower buds as they emerge. Of course I’m way late doing it on this tree but I need backbudding anyway soooo……snip. I’ll remove the wire and do a, mostly, defoliation. On a buttonwood, I’ll leave the petiole and part of the leaf. The part I keep has two “glands” their sole purpose is expelling excess salt (this is how it has adapted to brackish water environments). Those glands:I cut, contrary to the leaf in my hand, after the arrow, and leave (heh) this part of the leaf: …..attached to the stem. I don’t water with salt water (which many early Florida bonsai people did) but any synthetic fertilizer will build up excess salt in the soil and it helps to get rid of it. And preserving the petiole helps to push the axillary bud (or lateral bud. I prefer to say “the bud that grows in the crotch between the leaf and the stem” purely because I like to say the word “crotch”). 

Ok, lesson over, let’s continue… this point I can start to cut for taper….

……and for backbudding…..

……and structure….

Some of thes branches were left for vigor, ….or to hold place on the canopy…But since the initial styling (which I can’t show you, that lost video, sorry) I’ve had enough growth where I can now correct some of those “flaws”. There we go. Now to re-wire. I don’t tend to style buttonwoods in a classical way (there’s nothing wrong with that by the way, it bugs me when people proclaim that a tree needs to be styled the way it grows in nature. Some trees do, mainly because the growth habit will fight you, like trying to grow a weeping willow in a formal upright style, but many trees can be styled any way that you want). 

I will build multiple crowns and tops. My branching is sometimes convoluted (a lot like my sentence structure). I’ll try to match the branching to the trunk character and line. It’s just the way I style. Other people disagree with it. Oh well. It’s like the difference between Matisse and Picasso; they were both Masters, but their styles were different. 

I load up on some of those SumoCakes fertilizer and set it back out in the sun. 

I think I like this as the front…at the moment. I still need some branching on the top, it’s still just an S at the moment. But that comes in time. Some bonsai grow a branch at a time. Some will pop out branches everywhere. Maybe I need to sing to my trees more. That might be it. 

And that’s all I have to say about that. Pablo (in the back there) doesn’t have anything else to say either. 

4 thoughts

  1. I really got into that narrative. I felt like I was there, at the nameless key, pissing.
    Great post!
    Unrelated selfish request: Could you possibly do some “Where are they now” posts? I want to see more of your trees in mid-growth! (thank you)


  2. Adam, If one wanted to start a buttonwood from seed, how would one go about that. I have tons of buttonwoods all around me with those buds but they are brown. Which part is the actual seed? Or is it too late once the bud is brown? By the way, your blog is awesome. Im glad I found it..


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