The buttonwood bonsai tree is a common name. There are many plants with the common name of "buttonwood." For bonsai enthusiasts in the northern hemisphere, Conocarpus erectus (Combretum Family) is one of the most popular collected tropical trees for bonsai.
They grow along the shoreline in Florida near the common mangroves. Some mangroves have biologically adapted to grow in the water, while the Conocarpus e. (a close relative) prefers a little higher ground.
Buttonwood bonsai trees are often collected from the wild where they are most likely to have character and age.
In a shoreline environment, they often have unique shapes and ‘driftwood’ trunks.
They have endured years of windblown sand, tropical storms, hurricanes, droughts and floods. The Florida Keys are the perfect place for such beauties to develop.
Once you’ve seen a buttonwood bonsai, you may think all of them are gnarly, twisted, leaning trees full of dead wood. They're not.
Some need a little help to gain the appearance of age. Collected trees such as this can easily be carved to look like older trees. The basic shape is there. The wood is very hard, and features can be created with both hand carving and power tools.
It is difficult to replicate the inherent beauty of driftwood, but it can be done. Practice on a throw-away piece of hard wood first.
(Inland, this tree has a perfectly straight growth pattern. It is often pruned and kept as a hedge.)
The buttonwood has attracted bonsai hobbyists since the 1950s. In the beginning, they were little more than plants in bonsai pots, but even then the driftwood expressed age.
Sometimes the leaves were too big, and the overall appearance was rangy. Through years of experimenting and sharing knowledge, tropical artists have developed techniques for both better design and culture. Although not recommended, some, such as Carl Rosner, have learned to grow it indoors!
This amazing buttonwood, collected by Mary Madison was named by John Naka.
Not sure if your tree is a buttonwood bonsai tree? 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 always 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 common 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.
This chart of leaf sizes was created by Ed Trout. Leaves were taken from many different trees to show the varying sizes and shapes from plant to plant.
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 been affected very little 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!
And two buttonwood bonsai stories
Also see Ed Trout's buttonwood contribution as guest author