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Buttonwood

Maggie Beyer, USA
Hukyu Bonsai Society
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This article originaly appeared in "Florida Bonsai" the magazine of the Bonsai Societies of Florida.
Vol XX, No. 4, pg 6 - 9 and Vol XXI, No. 1, pg 2-3.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher of "Florida Bonsai" magazine.

Buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus) out of Jim Smith's collection
Photograph by Jim Smith

Editor's note: the information contained in this article is the editor's interpretation of notes for a demonstration presented by Ms. Maggie Beyer on October 20, 1990, at the BSF convention in Tampa, as amended by information provided later. Ms. Beyer requested it be defined that this information is for the Pinellas Park area of Florida and has been learned from trial and error over a period of years. No assurances are made as to the relevancy of the information at any other location. No guarantees are made that the methods described here will work for another person.

The first topic deals with the day-to-day location of buttonwood bonsai. In the Pinellas Park area which is sunny and windy, the most suitable exposures seem to be on the southeast and west sides of a house. Button wood bonsai are kept on movable mesh shelves two feet by four feet by two inches. The mesh of one inch squares allows maximum air circulation. When temperatures at the day-to-day location reaches 50-55 F, the trees are moved into a southwest facing screen porch. If there is an extended cold spell, all are moved into the living room of the house in front of a plate glass window. If the trees get too cold, bring them indoors and water them with very warm water. Discontinue watering when the water coming out from the drainage hole of the container feels warm to the touch instead of cold. Some people are able to harden off buttonwoods to accept 40 F as a cut off point. It is found that leaves maintain a nicer color for exhibiting if the between 50 F- 55 F is observed as a cut off point.

Watering is the second topic. A two inch PVC pipe with mist heads spaced at six foot intervals is used to provide the early morning watering. The mist is left to run for 25 minutes daily. Occasionally a cascade or a pot bound tree will require hand watering a second time during the day.

The third subject is fertilizing. Fertilizing with liquid commercial fertilizer full strength is accomplished at least monthly but it is preferable to use diluted 1/2 strength fertilizer every two weeks. The formula for liquid fertilizer is 1/4 teaspoon Superthrive, 1 tablespoon Sea Crop liquid seaweed, and 1 tablespoon liquid fertilizer such as Peters. Use this amount in one gallon of water. Use 20-20- 20 during spring, summer and early autumn on a rotation basis with the liquid mixture. During mid fall and winter use a bloom builder, 5-36-10 (low nitrogen). Woodace Briquettes, a rich source of seven micronutrients, are used year round, although rotated to different surface locations within the pot. These briquettes, with values of 14-3-3, are a slow-release fertilizer and can last 1 to 1 1/2 years on the soil surface. A nine inch pot should have five or six briquettes for the purpose of promoting growth (less for maintenance purposes). The cost per unit can be nominal when bought in bulk.

A couple of tips dealing with fertilizer:

On a mature bonsai use 1/4 teaspoon of Superthrive per gallon of water for two to three months after repotting to strengthen the tree, but cut back to 1-5 drops at that time since it can contribute to leaf enlargement.

Use a bloom builder, 0-10-10 or as low nitrogen as possible, before a show to green up foliage.

Topic four deals with soil mix. Many people in the Tampa area use and like the following mix: 3 parts The Ranch Sieved Bonsai Soil (basically a soil-less mix composed of organic and inorganic particles with an average size of 1/8 inch diameter) and 1 part sieved crushed coquina shells. Coquina shells are collected at the Gulf beaches and preferably should not exceed 1/4 inch in diameter. They should be sifted to remove sand but not rinsed. If you cannot find small pieces, unbroken shells may be placed between folds of an old rug or other cloth and beaten with a mallet. Another method is to use an old blender at high speed for a couple of seconds. After any crushing process, be sure to sift the shells to remove dust. (Dust is removed so it will not interfere with good drainage). A colander has the correct size screen to remove dust, and the remaining shell particles will correspond to the particle size of The Ranch Nursery Bonsai Soil (1/12"-1/14").

Substitute materials for coquina shell are either commercial oyster shell or calcium carbonate, both used for commercial chicken grit and available at local feed and seed stores. Each must have the dust sieved out. Another source of lime is a sprinkling of dolomite on the surface of the soil about 3 times a year.

Soil and coquina shells being of a similar particle size gives controlled drainage, better and more fibrous root systems and gives trees less chance of getting root rot. Note: while regular nursery soil maybe substituted for the sieved bonsai soil mix with the same proportions of three parts soil to one part crushed shells, the same attention to particle size of the ingredients should be followed. Try to match (within reason) the particle size of the crushed shells to the particle size of the soil.

Topic five dealt with pests of buttonwood. Very few pests really like buttonwood, but occasionally a beetle attacks the leaves and Sevin dust is used to treat for it. Scale insects are treated with alcohol on a cotton swab, while ants and aphids are treated with Basic H at two teaspoons per gallon of water. Oil based sprays, especially malathion, should not be used on buttonwoods.

Propagation of buttonwood was the subject of part six. Two basic means of propagation are used to reproduce buttonwood: classic air layers and cuttings. Cuttings may be rooted in water or soil. A liter soda bottle makes a perfect mini greenhouse for them. Remove the black bottom of the soda bottle, cut the rounded bottom from the bottle, place a rooting medium in the black part, place the cuttings, replace the top of the bottle and set in a dish of water for a few minutes. The plastic bottle maintains high humidity and the cuttings should root in a few weeks. All of these actions should be taken during the hot months of the year. Collecting from the wild is yet another way to increase the number of buttonwoods in your collection.

Topic seven, "Pruning," topic eight, "Repotting" and topic nine, "Design Control" have been formed into separate articles which follow.

Pruning for Branch Development and Leaf Reduction in Buttonwoods

This article originaly appeared in "Florida Bonsai" the magazine of the Bonsai Societies of Florida.
Vol XXI, No. 1, pg 4-8.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher of "Florida Bonsai" magazine.

This is the Pruning article promised you from the previous issue. It will focus on the step-by-step procedures I use in branch development and leaf reduction in buttonwoods. Please see the preceding article and the previous issue for other considerations which also may play a part in branch development and leaf reduction.

Repotting time is decision time. The following are two examples of pruning decisions which must be made at repotting time.

Subject number 1 is an immature bonsai with previous health or environmental problems which has possibly been neglected. It has leggy branches, its greenery is limited mostly to the last 1/3 of the branches, there is little interior foliage on the tree and there are few secondary or tertiary branches. The purpose of this technique is to force new buds to break back down a branch toward the trunk in order to create more opportunities for foliage and branches in the best places for design; in other words, to create more branch development. Repotting is done when nights sustain warm temperatures, May through August in the Tampa area.

Fertilize one to two weeks ahead of repotting. Cut back to two leaves (one set) over the entire tree. If you cut back to three leaves instead of two, the new buds usually will break out right at the cut and not back down the branch. Also, skipping an area in cutting back to two leaves can often interfere with the budding-back process.

During recovery from repotting and as new leaves reach 1/4" to 1/2" in length, break any old leaves in half using your thumb and index finger or cut in half with scissors. As new leaves reach 1 to 1 1/2" in length, break them in half, repeating as necessary. A new bud will form in the axil of a half-leaf remaining on the tree and new buds will also break back down the branch toward the trunk. Each new bud will then emerge as a pair of leaves. (For stubborn spots which do not bud back, try spraying the bark with liquid fertilizer. This will sometimes do the trick.)

At some point in the enlargement of the new leaf pairs, the old half leaves will turn color and drop off. Once enough buds have broken back down the branches and emerged as leaf pairs and greenery is flourishing in the interior of the tree, discontinue breaking the leaves in half. Choose which buds or leaf pairs are desired for the tree's future design and eliminate those not needed. Allow the chosen buds or leaf pairs to grow back out from the interior of the tree and to develop into branches.

As the new leaf pairs develop into branches, initiate basic bonsai techniques for branch development, such as:

To attain thickness of a branch, allow a branch or lost leader to grow wild until the desired thickness next to the trunk is approached, then cut back for taper.

To promote taper of a branch, cut back to two sets of leaves (four leaves), let grow out again and repeat the process until the desired effect is reached.

To control direction of movement in a branch, cut to buds pointing in the desired direction, for example:

1. To turn a future branch to the right or left, cut to a side bud pointing to the left or the right (on the old branch).

2. To curve a future branch upward, cut to a top bud pointing up (on the old branch).

3. To curve a future branch downward, cut to a bud pointing, as nearly as possible, straight down (on the old branch).

4. To keep a future branch going relatively in the same direction as the old branch, cut to a bud underneath (the old branch) which is pointing outward relatively in the same direction as the old branch. (Note: Do not cut so close to a bud so as to endanger it. One eighth inch away is a good guideline.)

Subject number 2, the second example, is a bonsai approaching maturity in design and size which is being considered for exhibit. The problem is that the leaves are too large in proportion to the height and width of the tree overall and more especially, to the thickness and length of the branches. The purpose of this exercise is to reduce the size of the leaves in order to bring leaf size more in scale with the size of the tree. Repotting is done at the same time as in example one.

Begin the procedure by fertilizing the tree one to two weeks ahead of repotting time. At repotting time, trim the foliage and branches for design maintenance with attention to balance between foliage and root masses, future perimeter line of foliage mass, branch movement and negative or open space. Over the entire tree, break in half any leaf over 1 to 1 1/2" in length.

During the optimum growing season [Editor's note: For buttonwoods as a whole, this is when the daytime temperatures are over 70 F and night temperatures exceed 60 F] and when the tree has recovered from repotting and is in its accustomed outdoor location, any leaf reaching over 1 to 11 /2"in length is broken in half. A new bud will form in the axil of each half leaf remaining on the tree. New buds will also break back down the branch toward the trunk. Each new bud will then emerge as a pair of leaves. At some point in the enlargement of a new leaf pair, the old half-leaf will turn color and drop off.

As this process of breaking large leaves in half is continued repeatedly, more leaves emerge, smaller each time, and more buds break back down the branch toward the trunk. Leaves 1/4" wide by 1/2" long can usually be achieved in 12 weeks, more or less. Personal judgement must be used in bow small to go before the desired scale in leaf size is pleasing for the tree size. Small leaves can usually hold their size for several months depending upon the time of year, your fertilizing program and control of leaves over 1 to 1 1/2" in length. The demand for the breaking in half process gradually slows down over time.

Here is a tip for green half-leaves and exhibit aesthetics. Green half leaves can sometimes remain on a tree for quite a while before dropping off. What do you do at exhibit time, remove then or keep them?

Remove the old half-leaves if new emerging leaves are secure in size, 1/4" to 1/2" in length. Keep them if the bud in the half-leaf s axil has not emerged or is just emerging, or if some greenery is needed at a particular spot in the design of the tree such as a gap in the perimeter line or upper foliage mass, etc.

But try this: as close to the time of the exhibit as is reasonably possible, trim a large green half-leaf to resemble the size, shape and tip of the small leaves on the tree with a pair of very sharp scissors. The brown color of a cut leaf edge on the green "half-leaf' will usually not appear for a few days. This procedure should be done in good taste and not overdone. The goal in an exhibit is to enhance the design for the viewer, not to distract attention from the tree.

A few reminders:

Cutting back to two leaves (one set) and/or breaking leaves in half really opens up the tree to more sunlight penetration, apparently, from the literature and experience, a key factor in both branch development and leaf reduction.

Full sun, abundant watering with good soil drainage, along with regular and consistent fertilizing are essential in buttonwood branch development and leaf reduction.

Repotting is usually necessary once a year since many fibrous roots develop under the program outlined above.

Apex foliage is slower to emerge and mature than foliage on lower branches.

For wound repair, use a very sharp knife to make tool-pruned cut edges smooth. Use cut paste or liquid cut sealant to cover open cuts for faster, more attractive healing.

Here are some recommendations concerning the techniques outlined:

To try your hand for the first time with the techniques outlined, if possible, choose a buttonwood with which you have few or no emotional attachments.

If you are uneasy about trying techniques discussed here for branch development and leaf reduction, try the following experiments to form your own conclusions.

During the growing season, try breaking some leaves in half and see what happens, especially, break those leaves pointing straight up.

Try combining the breaking of leaves in half (those over 1 1/2" long) with pinching out the terminals of your branches to see what happens. (Perhaps try just one back branch.)

Repotting Buttonwoods

This article originaly appeared in "Florida Bonsai" the magazine of the Bonsai Societies of Florida.
Vol XXI, No. 2, pg 2-5.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher of "Florida Bonsai" magazine.

Begin with fertilizing one to two weeks prior to repotting in order to fortify the tree for the rigors of the operation. Prepare enough mix of soil and coquina shells to accommodate an exchange of potting medium. (See "Buttonwood", item #4)

Prepare a repotting solution of 1/4 teaspoon Superthrive and one tablespoon of liquid seaweed (North American Kelp) to one gallon of water. Make enough solution to provide for a quart spray bottle to keep the foliage and exposed roots damp, a gallon plastic jug with a sprinkler top attached to it to wet dry soil in the bonsai container of the newly transplanted bonsai, and an appropriately sized basin to soak the exposed root ball as well as the container holding the completed bonsai transplant.

Prune the branches and leaves according to the purposes for your chosen design. (See "Pruning for Branch Development and Leaf Reduction in Buttonwood,"). Remove old wire which could be potentially harmful.

Scrub the trunk, branches and driftwood with "Basic H," a biodegradable, safe detergent (two teaspoons per one gallon of water). "Basic H" is used to clean moss, mold and insects from the tree.

Wire those branches which need to be wired using aluminum wire at 45 degree angles. Do not use copper wire on buttonwoods.

Prepare buttonwood driftwood for repotting: carve, brush, sand, wipe and otherwise clean and shape the carved driftwood. To preserve driftwood from rotting and to obtain the off-white color of the dry finish, wet the driftwood thoroughly with water from the spray bottle and let it drain until the wood is evenly damp. Paint the driftwood with "Orthorix," (lime sulphur), at full strength from the bottle. (Applying "Orthorix" on damp wood rather than dry promotes faster, more even absorption, plus a rapid off white dry color.) Caution: Keep "Orthorix" off live bark, leaves and soil.

Have the quart bottle with Superthrive and liquid seaweed ready for spraying foliage and exposed roots; neither area should be allowed to dry out.

Remove the tree from its pot and trim the roots. Reduce the root ball by 1/2, removing large roots plus some root mass immediately under the trunk. "Feather cut" the root ball mass so that the terminal edges of the roots extend outward horizontally in a graduated plane going from shorter surface roots to longer bottom roots. Cut out three wedges of root mass on old or pot bound trees, leaving empty "growing space" for future roots inside the perimeter of the container. Remove the old soil from root tips so that new fresh soil will be available to them. (Note: If "bare rooting" should be necessary, a forceful spraying from a garden hose nozzle can be efficient yet gentle enough not to damage the roots.)

While trimming roots, mist them and the foliage as needed to keep them moist with the solution in the quart spray bottle.

Pour some repotting solution into a basin appropriately sized to bold the root ball of the tree. Set the tree with its exposed root ball in the pan of solution and allow the root ball to be totally immersed. Let the root ball soak until it is ready for placement in the bonsai container. Continue to mist the foliage with the solution from the spray bottle.

To prepare the container for the bonsai, clean off mineral deposits with "Lime Away," muriatic acid, etc., rinse, check for any chemical residue and rinse thoroughly. Cover the drain holes with plastic screen patches and secure them with wire loops. Insert tie-down wires (scrap plastic-covered telephone wires) through the plastic screens covering the drain holes of the container. Place a layer of large sized shells (1/4") on top of the plastic screens covering the drain holes. Pour prepared soil mix into the container, mounding it in the spot where the tree trunk is to be placed.

To plant the bonsai into the container, remove it from the soaking solution, place the trunk on top of the mounded soil in the container and check to see if the surface roots are level. Be sure the trunk is located in the container at the spot most appropriate for the style of tree.

Tie the root ball into the container with the "tie-down" wires. Once the tree is tied into the container, check to see that there is no movement of the trunk, thus no movement of the roots. Note: On very delicate root masses (example: those on a new air-layer transplant), "tie-down" wires are not secured by tying over or within the root ball mass. Instead, the wires are attached to the outside of the container in four places and then, in turn, anchored to the trunk. (The trunk can be protected from wire damage by having padding underneath the wire at the point of contact with the trunk.) On an older, yet delicate, fibrous root mass, the wires can be brought up inside the container from the drainage holes and through the root ball mass, but then anchored to the trunk.

Chopstick the soil into the root mass, checking the surface soil for holes missed in the chop sticking process. Do this by feeling for soft spots with your fingers flat on the surface of the soil. Use a bonsai "broom" to smooth and contour the soil surface, especially at the container rim.

Have the gallon plastic jug with the sprinkler top attached ready with repotting solution. (This sprinkler top is filled with tiny holes and is the kind used for sprinkling or dampening clothes for ironing, or the kind of top resembling the rose on a watering can.)

Soak the newly transplanted bonsai by setting the container into an empty basin of appropriate size. Standingabove the tree, sprinkle the foliage and soil with repotting solution. Continue sprinkling until the basin fills with the liquid to the level of the outside rim of the bonsai container. (Note: Air bubbles will begin to escape from the soil at this time.)

Place the tree still in its soaking solution on a screened porch, if possible. (Note: I have a two sided, screened porch on the southwest corner of the house.) The tree may remain in the solution from one hour up to several days, depending upon the severity of the root pruning or the style of the tree, such as cascade. Mist the foliage and bark of the tree with a band sprayer one to three times daily while the tree is on the porch with the following liquid fertilizer mix: 1/4 teaspoon Superthrive, one tablespoon liquid seaweed, one tablespoon liquid fertilizer (20-20-20) per gallon of water. Caution: Do not us the above liquid mix on soil. When spraying, use only on foliage, bark, branches and trunk. (Note: Water may be substituted occasionally for the liquid fertilizer mix as a foliar spray.)

Locate the tree on the porch to receive filtered sun in the morning during the first and second weeks, then move it to receive afternoon sun the second and third weeks.

Water as needed. Keep the tree on the porch until the new "leafing out" of the tree seems secure in color, quantity and size of leaves. (This is usually when the new leaves are 1/4" to 1/2" in length.) Remove the tree from the porch to its outdoor location where it receives morning sun. (Once a large number of leaves are reaching 1" to 1 1/2" in length, the tree usually can handle full sun, morning and afternoon.)

Once the new bonsai transplant is off the porch and in its outdoor location (usually during the fourth to-sixth week time period), discontinue foliar feeding of the liquid fertilizer mix used in the porch setting. Now apply to the soil a mild liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion (nothing stronger so as not to risk burning new roots). Place Woodace briquettes snugly on the surface of the soil in the tree's container. (Woodace is a slow-release fertilizer with seven micronutrients and appears not to activate immediately.)

Two to three weeks after the application of the mild liquid fertilizer (fish emulsion) to the soil, begin a regular fertilizing program.

This regular fertilizing program would mean a monthly application at full strength or a bimonthly application at appropriately diluted strength of the following ingredients per gallon of water: 1/4 teaspoon Superthrive, 1 tablespoon liquid fertilizer (20-20-20).

Design Control of Buttonwood

This article originaly appeared in "Florida Bonsai" the magazine of the Bonsai Societies of Florida.
Vol XXI, No 3, pg 2-4.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher of "Florida Bonsai" magazine.

The initial steps to be considered in the execution of design control of buttonwood are some of the most important. First, make sure the surface roots of the tree are level since this step will most often determine the style of tree to be pursued with the most satisfaction. Deborah Koreshoff, referring to her father's advice in her book, BONSAI, says that you should have the "story" of the tree clearly in mind in your imagination before you begin your design. This story will include the tree's present environment and past history such as its location, be that meadow, bills, mountain, within a forest, on a lake, on a seashore, etc. Also included should be the amount of sun, water, shade, wind the tree receives and the types of storms it is involved with such as lightning, wind direction, catastrophic damage or steady damage over the years, etc.

After these initial steps are clearly in mind, primary attention should be focused on the driftwood portion ofthe buttonwood. Driftwood will be an inescapable artistic focus, so, for example, the green apex of foliage should not compete (should not be the same height) with the driftwood apex. Before carving, let your imagination look for shapes of animals or birds, human movement such as dancing, or lines of calligraphy and abstraction. When carving driftwood, follow the grain line of the wood. Experiment with care on wet driftwood. Carving can go very rapidly but mistakes can happen rapidly, too.

Another facet of design control is developing perspective, depth or "3-dimensionality" in your bonsai. You should try to gain additional knowledge through reading, classes, workshops and other sources, and by using your own "artistic eye" as it moves through a tree (yours or some else's). Pay particular attention to open spaces ("negative space") in your design, ensuring that adequate open space exists in the tree's foliage mass to encourage the viewer to believe that it is a tree rather than a shrub which he/she is seeing.

Another way of creating perspective in design occurs when a downward pointing side branch forms an irregular "C" at its intersection with the trunk in the middle or upper section of the tree. Rather than leaving "open space" completely "open" inside the curve of the "C", try this: nick that open space with a touch of greenery coming out from a branch in the back. The artistic eye will not then shoot straight through the open space to escape from the tree in a huffy, but will stop or pause at the touch of greenery coming from the back of the tree. This is how perspective is realized both by the artist and the viewer.

To add to the perspective of the bonsai, try to leave as much space as possible in front of the tree placed in a rectangular or oval container or in a tray.

The apex contour is another objective of design control. A rounded head (apex) of foliage will indicate more age on a broad-leaf evergreen, such as a buttonwood. A pointed head (apex) of foliage on a broad leaf evergreen can be interpreted to represent a young tree. Most common contours are a rounded foliage head on deciduous and broad-leaf evergreens, and a pointed head for conifers. Keep in mind, however, that trees with a rounded head of foliage should continue to observe the goal of asymmetrical triangulation in design.

Everyone can agree: good taper in a bonsai is a joy to behold. Developing taper, however, requires two essential ingredients on the part of the bonsai artist: a "good eye" for design and a good sense for timing in pruning. As the eye travels from the base of the tree to the apex, remember to pay attention to gradual reduction in the diameter size of the trunk, the amount of space/distance between branch junctions on the trunk and the length and thickness of individual branches. Also remember that, as the eye travels from the junction of a branch with the trunk and along the branch to the branch terminal, the same process of "gradual reduction" should occur within the branch structure as it does within that of the trunk structure.

The final point to consider in design control is to view a tree for its overall design. Look at the tree from a distance against a plain, uncluttered background. Scan each of the four sides of a tree (front, back, left side and right side) for appropriate perimeter line of foliage mass, asymmetrical triangulation of the overall composition and gradation in taper of the trunk and branches. Using a turntable when designing a tree assists in accomplishing these factors.

I'm sure the above six aspects of design control have reminded you, as it has me, of additional ones we could discuss. Coming to my mind are - balance; when taper isn't so important; color; containers; stands, accent plants, etc. I have much to explore and grow in design control and find it fascinating. For today, however, let's say these six aspects above can be considered a good beginning in our future development.

Moreover, remember, feel free to use, adapt, change what has been said here to fit your own needs and pace. Within certain guidelines, buttonwoods are usually pretty forgiving and can thrive under a range of different "care." Nevertheless, one thing is for sure - while buttonwoods can be challenging, they also are quick to reward effort put into them.

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