Madison kept the tree for a while, before selling it in 1992 to Bill Jagoe, an Indiana bonsai enthusiast who began to train it: wiring the branches into an attractive shape, pruning all the leaves every May or June to force them to regrow in profusion, doubling the density of the canopy.
When Jagoe grew older and started spending more time in Florida, he began doling out the trees in his collection. Eleven years ago, the Bogans got some, including the buttonwood.
“That’s what I consider to be what we call a legacy tree,” Bogan said. “It’s one that’s passed from one person to another.”
A bonsai tree is like an Old Masters painting or a historic house: You don’t so much own one as care for it so it can be passed on to the next caretaker. Some bonsai are hundreds of years old, their lineage recorded as carefully as any princeling’s.
The Bogans came to love the rough appeal of the buttonwood, named, supposedly, because Native Americans used its hard wood for buttons.
“In swamps, they’re constantly windblown and hurricanes tear part of the bark off. That gives it an old driftwood, gnarly-looking trunk,” Bogan said.
The buttonwood fit the bill.
Bogan didn’t know who the tree was going to until news rippled through the bonsai community that the CIA had posted a photo of a bonsai on its Facebook page.
“We saw it and said, ‘That’s our tree,’” Bogan said.
The tree had been given to the CIA director by the United Arab Emirates.
“It’s not uncommon for us to receive gifts from foreign countries,” said CIA spokeswoman Chelsea Robinson. “In this particular case it was just in honor of our country’s close partnership with the UAE.”
Unlike a ceremonial dagger or a crystal vase, the tree could not just be put on a shelf. It needed the proper environment and regular care.
“I had it in my office, in front of this big window,” Robinson said. “We put out a big punch bowl filled with water, shut the door and covered up the air-conditioner vents trying to make it more humid. We were terrified of leaving the tree.”
In a letter to the museum, CIA director Haspel wrote: “While the CIA has many talented officers, we are not skilled in the art of bonsai maintenance, and so we are incredibly grateful that the tree will be preserved in the museum’s celebrated collection 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 that their father’s tree was now going to be in the National Arboretum.”
The buttonwood is in the collection’s “growout” area, recovering from its travels before it goes on display.
There was something I was curious about. Isn’t it risky for the CIA to accept gifts destined for the director’s office, even from an ally?
“Our security had to check the tree to be sure there was nothing in it,” the CIA’s Robinson said. “I will say — it’s pretty funny — when we were moving the tree we did discover there actually was a praying mantis in it. So, technically, we were bugged.”