For this lesson I have two buttonwoods
The first post will deal with the first tree (like..duh!);
in which there are two problems, one design, one horticulture.
The second post will….uh, well, you get the idea.
Let us begin then…
The buttonwood
Conocarpus erectus: a name that means the seed is cone like and the growth is upright.
In Spanish it’s mangle botón. In fact, here’s an exhaustive list of names from Wikipedia:
…..Asokolo, Asopolo, Botoncahui, Botoncillo, Botonillo, Chene Guadeloupe, Conocarpe Droit, Estachahuite, Geli, Gra Mangrove, Grignon, Grijze Mangle, Grijze Mangrove, Iztac-cuahuitl, Jele, Kaba, Kan-chik-inche, Kanche, Kank-ank-che, Kank-che, Madre de Sal, Mangel, Mangel Blancu, Mangle, Mangle Blanco, Mangle Boton, Mangle Botoncillo, Mangle Cenizo, Mangle Garbancillo, Mangle Gris, Mangle Jeli, Mangle Lloroso, Mangle Marequita, Mangle Negro, Mangle Pinuelo, Mangle Prieto, Mangle Roche, Mangle Torcido, Mangle Zaragoza, Manglier, Manglier Gris, Mangrovia Grigia, Mangue, Mangue Branco, Mangue de Botao, Maraquito, N Ja, Paletuvier, Paletuvier Gris, Pash-chuhnul, Pataban, Saragosa, Taabche, Tabche, Witte Mangel, Witte Mangro, Wortelboom, X-kanche, Xtabche, Yana and Zaragosa.

It is native to the Florida coast, the Caribbean, the Mexican coast, The S. American coast and African coast.
It is, basically, a coastal, tropical to sub-tropical tree.
And, notwithstanding the examples we see in bonsai, in ideal conditions, it grows straight, fast and tall. Up to 20 feet and 3 feet diameter trunks.
It is a survivor though, the examples we see in Bonsai are the result of brutal conditions like hurricanes, drought, rocky terrain, alligators and extreme heat.
The root systems are highly adaptable, which I’ll explain later.
Back to subject number one.
Examine this picture with all the pretty colors
Besides it making me look smarter than I am, those lines and arrows all mean something.
We are looking at the right side of the tree.
The red trunk line shows the possibility of a pigeon breast aspect to the trunk (dark red arrow).
All you intermediates out there can spot a pigeon breast but why is this a “bad” thing?
Well, I’m here to tell ya’.
It is a perspective thing. Objects closer to you look bigger. If the middle/ top of the trunk is bulging forward ( like a pigeons breast. Or any breast I guess) and your tree has only fair to middling taper, it will appear to have obverse taper (reverse or inverse taper to you bonsai jargonistas. I’ve talked about these words before. Look up the word obverse: in biology – narrower at the base or point of attachment than at the apex or top.)
The blue line is the big first branch, which is pointing to the rear left. This is usually frowned upon (the first branch should point to one of the front corners of the pot).
The one plus I have is the top (pink arrow) bending forward, which aids in the illusion that the tree is taller than it is. This is a technique we use to trick the mind into seeing the little tree as a big tree. Let me expand.
When we look at trees in the ground, we look up, right? (they are, after all, usually taller than us). So, by tilting the trunk or top of the tree forward, the mind perceives this as though it is looming over you. It’s probably the most important design technique you should use.
There are your design lessons. Now some horticulture lessons, specific to buttonwood.
This tree was collected by Erik Wigert and I picked it up after doing a demo for him at one of his open houses too many years ago. I haven’t done anything with it except trim the top.
It is severely root bound.
The problem with buttonwood is it is not good at producing fine roots to fill a pot with unless we root prune periodically. It merely keeps growing around and around looking for some dirt to root into. You will often see a buttonwoods roots described as “spaghetti-like”.
These long, thick roots are an adaption for growing in poor, rocky soil. They are continually growing down and down and around searching for… I said, dirt.
When you collect them on the coast the roots will be so far away or so entwined with the rocks that you’ll end up with something like this
Scary, isn’t it?
The will to survive is so strong with a buttonwood that this sawn off stump will usually grow (if you collect in the summertime). It is a reaction to the harsh environment of hurricanes that makes this tree grow new roots readily.
Imagine a tree getting just enough wind to break off the windward side roots: any other tree likely would die.
Not so the buttonwood. It just throws out new roots.
Within weeks the roots emerge from the sawn off stumps
And the tree survives.
Unfortunately, if the owner of the tree (that would be me) is not vigilant and expeditious those roots soon do this,
the result of the tree searching for that dirt.
The solution is: annual repotting.
Then you get this
Hopefully (you’ll see, in part two, the real life result of a consecutive year repot on a 3 year past collected tree)
The soil you use will also make a difference. I have tasked myself this year with replacing all of the potting soil my buttonwoods are in with bonsai soil.
Before that though, I present you with The Horror-
What a waste of years….. Even the Aztec god of bonsai is giving me the “Look”
With the root pruning it’s almost back to the post-collection state.
It’s just poor farming on my part.
It will live though.
I think.
Can I get a few prayers out there?
And as if that’s not enough
I will further brutalize this poor tree
The too-thick first branch will be my first Jin.
And the top will be turned into deadwood as well
I can just imagine you guys screaming in anguish at seeing this poor tree in my hands.
You’ve seen me chop up ficus similarly but, hey, who cares about a ficus, right?
Trust me.
This tree will make it.
The creation of these dead branches will actually help the tree recover quicker.
But please, don’t do this to any tree you own unless you have some experience with post-collection after care.
Now what?
A new pot
Good soil
Some carving?
Not now though, sorry.
You’ll have to wait until next year for that.
I will wire though.

What do I see as the future of this tree?
I see a round pot.
I see some serious carving on that first branch.
I see a two year process of developing this buttonwood.
I see a sketch.
I see fertilizer, water and sun.
The next tree I will leave for the next post. I have gobs more to say on it.
I got it from Mary Madison.
I’ll give you a glimpse
It’s popping a wheelie! Yeehaw!
And, now, going back to our first tree,
I saw a sketch, and you shall see a sketch too
How can I possibly think that I can get movement in that first branch?
You’ll have to wait until later……or search the different carving posts I’ve made (I’ve already revealed that secret).

8 thoughts

  1. Love the virtual….Lets see how you will progress it now. Dont forget it again. He he he!
    I liked the way the two big branches were relating in picture 3, and it gave some illusion of taper. What problems do you see with that scenario?


    1. I suspect that the ultimate front is a few stylings away. I’ll need to do the carving first and see what branches develop (or die) to really gauge the final design.


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