Central Florida's Agri-Leader
She’s known as “The Buttonwood Lady” in bonsai circles.
That’s because Lake Placid resident Mary Madison is known for introducing the gnarly-trunked buttonwood tree into this Japanese art of plant miniaturization.
As a child, Madison loved oriental art with its bonsai representations. “I used to go down to the Keys with my father,” said the Florida native who grew up near Homestead. “I’d see these trees. I thought, ‘gee, they look just like those pictures.’”
Madison has been sculpting miniature trees for 40 years now. She has travelled to Japan and China, and has even been accepted into an elite Japanese bonsai club in California for a 500-year-old bonsai she produced. It was a tremendous honor in the world of bonsai, especially since in Japan the art is considered a male past time.
“I was the first Caucasian and the only woman (accepted into the club),” stated Madison. “That was fun.”
“They had a big party for me. We sat on the floor. They were serving sake,” she recounted. Her eyes twinkled as she added, “That was fun, too.”
The club named Madison’s tree “senryu,” which means “mystical dragon.” It now resides at her Lake Placid home along with more than 100 other bonsai trees in her yard and hothouse.
Madison is renowned for her work in bonsai. If you Google her, a number of results come up having to do with lectures and workshops she’s given, bonsai trees of hers in prominent gardens, and even an enthusiastic bonsai-loving blogger who took a road trip from Orlando down to Lake Placid to meet her.
She has three trees published in the 1st U.S. National Bonsai Exhibition 2008 book and has won numerous awards and “Best of Shows.” She has taught all over the United States, and in Canada and the Bahamas, too.
Madison is self-taught and also received instruction from a bonsai expert from Japan. “I didn’t study. I was always around it, just doing it,” she said, adding “I planted every seed I could get and every cutting I could get. I love growing.”
Madison said that there are many types of plants that can be made into bonsai, including cypress trees, ficus, junipers and Australian pines. Shrubs like indian hawthorne do well, too. She’s even used a gardenia bush and a sea grape.
Madison gave a few tips to Garden Club of Sebring members during an April meeting and mini-workshop.
Take off the gravel that’s typically glued on to commercial bonsais, she recommended. “It’s not getting the proper water or fertilizer or anything you do to it with that gravel on it.”
“This is spindly. It needs more sun,” she told a club member who had brought in a small ficus bonsai. You don’t want “eye-pokers” sticking out and you don’t want branches to cross one another, Madison explained, cutting a long branch from the top of the tree.
This great-grandmother of a teenager demonstrated how to use copper wire to train the branches to grow more horizontally. Everything wants to grow up, Madison continued, surprising her audience again with a dose of ready humor. “You want the illusion of an old tree, and you know how it is when you get old. You start drooping here,” she grinned as she clipped, “When you are young, it’s all up!”
She also recommended using a regular potting soil rather than bonsai soil, which drains so quickly that plants can easily dry out in the heat of Florida. A little liquid fertilizer works well, Madison stated, or a fish emulsion. “They love that,” she said of the trees, eliciting more laughter when she added, “So do the cats!”
But bonsai isn’t all technique. It involves artistic talent as well as instinct. The hardest part is “knowing your tree, knowing what it wants, understanding it,” said Madison.
Madison is active in the Bonsai Societies of Florida, a mother club with 23 chapters all over the state. She will be attending their annual convention at the Orlando Marriott in Lake Mary over Memorial Day weekend. In fact, the conventions are the best part of bonsai-ing, according to Madison.
“We all get together and look at each other’s trees,” she said. There might occur the negotiation of a friendly bonsai trade over a drink. According to Madison, “Seeing your good friends year after year” is the best part.