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#18 - Mighty Buttonwood

Conocarpus erectus is a common medium-sized tropical tree on the ELC campus. Despite its other common name “buttonwood mangrove”, it is a so-called mangrove-associate, that can most typically be found at the edge of mangrove forests behind the line of white mangroves (Laguncularia racemosa) where it often indicates the beginning of the high marsh that stays moist but experiences only occasional inundation with brackish water. The tree’s adaptation to these salty coastal environments allows it to grow where only a few other plants can survive by excreting salt through glands at the base of the leaf petioles. The rather inconspicuous but showy flower is a sphere shaped panicle (see photo) that bears a button-like fruit, hence the name buttonwood.

With specimens on the ELC campus of more than 25 feet height and branches reaching 20 feet across, it creates a microclimate underneath and suitable growing conditions for companion plants that prefer filtered sunlight. Some of these plants are our native bromeliads like Spanish moss (see photo below). The tree’s especially rough bark doesn’t just host insects for shelter, it also provides an excellent medium for anchoring epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants) like the endangered wild pine (Tillandsia utriculata), the cardinal plant (Tillandsia fasciculata) with its striking bright red flowers, or Tillandsia setacea. All of these plants that the tree provides habitat for create habitat themselves for small animals like amphibians and reptiles (for more information about Central Florida’s native bromeliads, read the article “It’s Wild Out There #5 – Bromeliads”).

Relationships between plants and animals are often as complex as they are inconspicuous. Not only is buttonwood a host for the larvae of the martial scrub hairstreak butterfly (Strymon martialis); If you take a closer look at the leaves, you can find tiny crevices around the mid-vein, called “domatia” (see photo), that are believed to be used by mites, which in turn protect the tree by eating fungal pathogens on the leaves.

Some of the most amazing events in nature take place in our own backyards if we replace exotic plants with natives. Buttonwood can also easily be established in dryer sandy soil wherever plenty of sunlight is available and a fast growing tree or shrub is desired.

If you are interested in planting habitat, visit the Environmental Learning Center’s native plant nursery in the nature nook – open seven days a week.

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