The case of bonsai CIA

The bonsai that would end up in the office of the director of the CIA Gina C. Haspel began life growing in the salt marshes of South Florida. This is where it was collected 30 years ago by Mary Madisonthe queen of buttons.

Madison got this nickname because of her fondness for the buttonhole – Conocarpus erectus – a species with a nice gnarled trunk that makes the tree look like a piece of driftwood from which the leaves have sprouted.

Madison kept the tree for a time, before selling it in 1992 to Bill Jagoean Indiana bonsai enthusiast who started training it: wiring the branches into an attractive shape, pruning all the leaves every May or June to force them to regrow profusely, doubling the density of the canopy.

“Over time, he turned it into a bonsai,” said David Boganwho learned the Japanese art of miniature tree carving from Jagoe and runs a bonsai supply business in Lynnville, Ind., with his wife, Barbaric.

When Jagoe got older and started spending more time in Florida, he started distributing trees from his collection. Eleven years ago, the Bogans got some, including the buttonhole.

“That’s what I consider to be what we call a legacy tree,” Bogan said. “It’s the one who passed from one person to another.”

A bonsai is like an old master painting or a historic home: you don’t own it until you take care of it so it can be passed on to the next caretaker. Some bonsai trees are hundreds of years old, their lineage is recorded as carefully as that of any prince.

The Bogans came to love the rough appeal of the buttonhole, named, supposedly, because Native Americans used its hardwood for buttons.

“In the swamps, they are constantly blown by the wind and hurricanes tear off some of the bark. It gives it an old driftwood, gnarled trunk,” Bogan said.

This summer, the Bogans were approached by a Tennessee bonsai broker named Bjorn Bjorholm
who said he had a client who was looking for a star tree to give away as a gift.

The buttonhole did the trick.

Bogan didn’t know who the tree was for until the bonsai community learned that the CIA had posted a photo of a bonsai tree on its Facebook page.

“We saw it and said, ‘This is our tree,'” Bogan said.

The tree had been given to the director of the CIA by the United Arab Emirates.

“It’s not uncommon for us to receive gifts from foreign countries,” a CIA spokeswoman said. chelsea robinson. “In this particular case, it was just in honor of our country’s close partnership with the United Arab Emirates.”

Unlike a ceremonial dagger or a crystal vase, the tree could not simply be placed on a shelf. He needed a proper environment and regular care.

“I had it in my office, in front of this big window,” Robinson said. “We got out a big punch bowl full of water, closed the door and covered the air conditioner vents trying to make it more humid. We were terrified to leave the tree.

And so the decision was made to transfer it to the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum.

In a letter to the museum, CIA Director Haspel wrote: “Although the CIA has many talented officers, we are not skilled in the art of bonsai care, and so we are extremely grateful that the tree is preserved in the famous collection of the museum and that it is in such expert hands.

Bill Jagoe died four or five years ago. Dave Bogan called his family with the latest developments: “I told them their father’s tree was now going to be at the National Arboretum.”

The Boutonniere is in the “growing” area of ​​the collection, recovering from its travels before being put on display.

There was something that interested me. Isn’t it risky for the CIA to accept leadership gifts, even from an ally?

“Our security had to check the tree to make sure there was nothing in it,” the CIA’s Robinson said. “I will say – it’s kind of funny – when we moved the tree, we found out there was actually a praying mantis in it. So technically we were bugged.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.

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