In Florida, the two most popular yamadori are Cypress and buttonwood Conocarpus erectus. In the 1970s, digging buttonwood in the Florida Keys was an adventure. Today the restrictions are much greater.
You may have heard some of the buttonwood bonsai stories of guns, bodies and terrible poisonous trees. (Most of which I know to be true.)
During one of those early collecting trips, I personally recall finding marijuana growing in a sunny spot in the woods. Those were the wild drug days in Miami (including the 'cocaine cowboys.') I left it right were it was.
This is one of the milder, early buttonwood bonsai stories.
I lived fairly close to the Florida Keys, in fact, I was closer to Key Largo than Miami. It wasn't unusual to take a run down on the weekend just to look around.
The local club persuaded me to take a group collecting.
I led only this one such expedition and stayed very busy showing folks what to look for, what to leave behind and how to fill in the holes.
In the process, I found a wonderful old Conocarpus e. begging to go home with me. Not wanting to distract the group, I left her there with the intent of finding her again on another day. II made a mental note of the exact location, I thought.
Two months later, on a hot August afternoon, I headed south. With thoughts of a fantastic buttonwood bonsai in mind, I invited a friend along to help me dig and carry her out. We drove for almost an hour and then searched for another hour. Still no spotting my bonsai-to-be. Everything looked so different. No luck that trip, but I would try again.
The next time, the water level was higher and the sun had moved higher in the sky. I couldn't find my mental markers. As we searched, I knew we couldn’t stay much longer. Summer sunsets come on in a sneak attack.
Suddenly I saw it, my buttonwood. But there was also something else in the area ... a sound I had never heard.
It was almost a moo, just a little more abrupt and very gruff. Then we heard the same sound coming from the opposite direction. I had seen plenty of gators, but they were quiet. I wasn't sure what they sounded like, but it seemed likely.
My friend assured me it was not cows and we dug faster. The water was almost to the top of my boots. It wasn't a small tree and the muck on the roots of the tree added to the weight!
The sounds continued back and forth. First one side, then the other. What was that noise?
It wasn't easy, but we finally captured the tree and took it to its new home, leaving behind the strange resonance. We decided it must have been alligators, what else?
I wish I had pictures of that adventure, but photos were the last thing on my mind. The pictures in this article are result of other collecting trips (mine and friends.)
This photo is the only picture I have of my find that day. In those days I was writing a newsletter, taking it to the print shop and mailing it out. No computer!
(Photos were black and white.)
Freezes are rare in deep South Florida, but they do happen. January of 1977 was especially bad, there were even snow flurries! When the temperature gets close to freezing the nurseries and farmers turn on the overhead irrigation to protect plants from going below 32 F - 0 C degrees. Yes, she lived!
Many years later, the Miami Herald newspaper announced: "a new area of fenced preservation in the Key Largo area. The only salt-water crocodiles in the United States are now protected."
This "more aggressive than alligator species" lives in our old buttonwood collecting grounds ... and we had been there during mating season!
In the beginning, buttonwood were little more than plants in bonsai pots for us. We really weren't sure how to style them. The driftwood was amazing and showed their age.
Through years of experimenting and sharing knowledge, tropical bonsai artists developed techniques for both design and culture. The late Joe Samuels was a leader in this effort. This literati was one of his trees (never quite finished.)
Joe often 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.” He called this bonsai his “lifeline.” What a story, what a life!