I just took possession, temporarily, of the Bonsai Societies of Florida’s President’s collection of bonsai. Or I should say the, suddenly, past president of BSF.

Jorge, the past president, is in the weeds with his trees.

I can’t blame him, so am I.

He and I were the co-chairs of the last (2022) BSF Convention and we were a bit busy these last few months, and, really, the last several years. Putting on a convention of the size we do, three days of solid bonsai (really six for the organizers and volunteers) multiple artists, hundreds of workshop and demo trees, an exhibit, vendor room and the vendors that go with it, raffles, auction, BSF Board meetings, and a banquet. But that’s another blog post (here’s a link to the latest addition of the Florida Bonsai Magazine to give you an idea of what you missed).

After all that, it’s now my job to whip his trees into shape. It would be his, but he suddenly (I say that again, but we had talked about it before, so not really suddenly, and he’s been working his way up the ladder at his job) got the position he has been wanting for some time. He now has to move from Orlando to North Carolina in a few weeks.

Which means selling his house, packing and deciding what to keep or take with him, finding a place to stay when he gets to his new job, etc . And the worst part is he has to move into an apartment for a few years. Which means I’ll take care of his trees until he can get them back.

They need work. I’ll start with an easy one. A buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus). An easy tree to write about too. Or so I thought. You’ll see, my mind has been blown by a research paper I just found. But that comes in the middle, informational bridge part. You’ll have to read on.

It’s healthy, with good color and the leaves are in good shape.

No chili thrips (an insidious species, Scirtothrips dorsalis, that gets its name from its proclivity for plants in the chili family (Capsicum) but has spread to crop plants as diverse as castor, cotton, strawberry, tea, cotton, peanut, etc. In Florida, the spread of the thrip in ornamentals has jumped species as well. Roses, pittosporum, schefflera, India hawthorn, and in this case, the Florida buttonwood. The thrip is tiny, and hard to see with the naked eye, so it’s damage is how we identify an infestation. It’s usually a brown to black scarring along the underside of the leaf that follows the leaf veining).

But this tree looks good.

The only ugly leaf on this buttonwood is, in fact, just this lonely orange one. And it’s just old (not that I’m saying old is ugly, don’t let that rumor spread about me. I mean, most of my customers are old. Jorge is even old…er than me….)

The tree is not growing yet, but it’s ready. Let’s kickstart it’s heart (🎶WHOAH! Yeah! Kickstart my heart hope it never stops …..WHOAH! YEAH! Baaaaaby!🎶).

Today’s work will be to defoliate, repot, and add some wire.

Defoliation on a buttonwood (as on all trees) can be controversial. I’ll refer you to my Blog Post: I use some fancy words to justify my defoliation habit, go figure. to explain the why, how, and when of my defoliation technique.

But this tree is ready. Notice, below, the new bud at the base of the leaf petiole? If you remove the leaf, as I did, a new branch will grow.

As for removing leaves on a buttonwood, or any tree for that matter, many bonsai practitioners will cut leaves in half, but, it is my understanding of the effect of abscisic acid, that you need to remove at least 80% of the leaf to initiate the growth of new or adventitious budding. The old leaf won’t abort until that threshold is met. But….notice, below, the buttonwood leaf structure:

When defoliating a buttonwood, make sure you leave the petiole (which I usually do) but more importantly, there are two glands that you need to conserve.

Looking closer, circled in red, are the glands.

The purpose of these glands is to help the tree express excess salts (sodium from seawater or fertilizer salts), which is how it had adapted to living life on the seashore (me, I tend to drink more margaritas whenever I visit the beach). Too much salt in the soil (or your margarita) doesn’t allow for ideal water uptake (but, maybe, if you can follow this Research paper, just a little salt might increase photosynthetic response and drought tolerance and even an increase in foliage. But I’m not suggesting adding salt…yet. I need to re-read that paper about a dozen times. You do need a little salt on the rim of a margarita though. It’s just not a proper margarita without it). I point out the glands because they help in the gas exchange and the expression of salts to keep the tree growing strongly. So keep them when defoliating. They may even help if you put too much fertilizer (which would explain the fact that we can load the tree with synthetic fertilizers, like nitrogen, which is usually sodium nitrate, a type of salt. Too much salt decreases osmotic pressure, decreasing water uptake, or even cause the plant to move water into the soil, in order to equalize the pressure. That results in fertilizer burn, which also presents as though the plant hasn’t been watered enough,). So the TL;DR version is: I don’t remove the glands when defoliating.

Anyway, with all that information I just unloaded on you, hopefully you’ll decrease the amount of fertilizer you use. More doesn’t mean better. Follow label directions.

Defoliated and now ready to repot.

Looking at the soil, you can see it needs it.

When the roots are filling up the surface, that’s a good sign it’s time to repot.

When they are coming out of the drain hole, that’s a better sign.

Now let’s see if I can get the tree out.

My best trick of the day, a cheap, serrated, steak knife is as good as any expensive tool they sell to help release the roots from the pot.

See? And yes, the best sign a tree needs repotting is circling roots like these.

Doh! Broke the pot! Not the best clay for a bonsai pot, but it was a good pot for this tree.

I guess there will be a kintsugi post in the near future. Sorry Jorge.

Don’t worry, I have a good replacement.

It might even be Japanese.

A smudge bigger too. Or is it “smidge”?

When working roots on a buttonwood, keep this concept in your mind: they are like al dente spaghetti. Dry spaghetti snaps easily, overcooked spaghetti you can twirl on a fork. Al dente (literally Italian meaning “to the tooth”) will flex and then break. For spaghetti, that’s fine, but for roots, that’s a recipe (see what I did there?) for disaster.

So, gently rake them out, trying not to snap off too many important ones.

To prune back the roots, follow the roots from the tree to the ends. Many times, a buttonwood could only have a few roots emerging from the trunk, and if you cut one off without finding from where it comes, you could lose the entire root system.

So slow down, take your time. And, as my kids used to say, “investerate careflea.”

Below, does this root go from the left or the right?

Looks like it starts on the right and goes left.

To prune the roots back, cut at the first root branching, closest to the trunk. That way you at least know it’ll grow more roots, just like when pruning a branch for taper.

Getting there…

And that’s enough. Contrary to popular belief, you shouldn’t be bare rooting a tree every time you repot. The roots hold a lot of sugars, and the old soil has beneficial microorganisms that help a tree to survive.

Back into new soil, fertilizer and a pre-emergent weed preventer. I’ll add some systemic insecticide when it begins to push new growth, to help control any chili thrips that might get a hankering for the new growth.

Some wire and….Bob’s yer uncle.

One down, many to go….

….and don’t worry Jorge, they’ll be looking good in no time. No more broken pots either.

11 thoughts

  1. Thanks Adam. It wasn’t until Dan helped me transport my trees to your nursery that I noticed how much I had neglected them. Convention Planning is very time consuming as I know you are aware. This buttonwood was purchased 4 years ago at the BSF Convention from Mary Madison, one of my favorites.


    1. You’re welcome my friend. I’ll add Mary’s name and some history into the post. And like I said, my trees aren’t in much better shape than yours, and I understand


  2. I had no idea about the glands and their function. That’s some interesting stuff with adapting to salty waters and all. Thanks


  3. You’re a trip!! I thought you were going to answer my question that no one else seems to be able to about my buttonwood…….


      1. Troy: did you ask Adam the question? Is it about the leaves from the one you brought the other night? Only one on the bench, next to others, that is showing strange leaf deformation without any other sign of pests or stress. You should upload a picture


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