There are many plants with the common name of 'buttonwood' tree.
For bonsai enthusiasts, Conocarpus erectus (Combretum Family) is one of the most popular collected tropical trees in the United States.
They grow along the shoreline in Florida near the mangroves.
Some mangroves have biologically adapted to grow in the water, while the Conocarpus e. prefers a little higher ground.
As bonsai, conocarpus e. almost always have beautiful driftwood.
Once you’ve seen the buttonwood as a bonsai, you may think all of them mature as gnarly, twisted, leaning trees full of dead wood.
This is not the case.
The tree is also used as a landscape tree inland and has a perfectly straight growth pattern. It is often pruned and kept as a hedge.
If you’ve ever been on the South Florida extension of the turnpike, you've probably passed them by, without recognizing them.
Button wood trees used for bonsai are usually collected from the wild where they are more likely to have character and age.
Because of their shoreline environment, they often have unique shapes and ‘driftwood’ trunks.
They can be old and have endured years of windblown sand, tropical storms, hurricanes, droughts and floods.
The Florida Keys are the perfect place for such beauties to develop.
It is important to know, "collecting" any shore line native plants is illegal in Florida, unless you are on private property with permission.
Even in those cases, many restrictions apply.
Not sure if your bonsai is a Conocarpus? The leaves can be quite different from one tree to the next.
There are a couple of easier ways to tell. The first way is to identify it by the flower.
Secondly, by two distinguishing glands - one on either side of the leaf stem (petiole).
Some say these petiole glands or “buttons” are where the name originates.
Others insist the fruit with its round, compact, cone-like structure is the answer.
An additional story credits the hard wood of Conocarpus, which made it valuable as wood for buttons in the late nineteenth century. This seems the most likely to me.
This amazing ancient tree resides on the corner of Leon and Washington Streets in Key West, FL.
It is estimated to be "hundreds of years old".
This is a close up of the gnarled trunk. The tree is located several blocks inland from the shoreline. It has not been affected by the blowing sand. No driftwood on this tree.
Every time I go to Key West, I make a point of stopping by for a visit.
I’ve seen it many times and in 2008, I noticed a recently added plaque - 'National Champion.'
Nice going old tree!
Conocarpus erectus has attracted bonsai hobbyists since the 1950s.
In the beginning, they were little more than plants in pots. They still showed their age.
Through years of experimenting and sharing knowledge, tropical bonsai artists have developed techniques for both design and culture.
This tree can be styled in as many bonsai styles as you can imagine.
The late Joe Samuels, Miami Beach, FL always told us “if you listen to a buttonwood, it will tell you a story.
It will tell you it is old, how many storms it has been through, and how many dry seasons.If you listen carefully, it will also tell you which style is most appropriate.”
Joe called this bonsai his “life line”. What a story!
To learn more about Conocarpus e. as bonsai, see Buttonwood Bonsai Care.
And don't miss more an adventure article about collecting buttonwood.
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