To some, the sea grape bonsai may seem an unusual bonsai because of its large, coarse, almost leathery leaves.
Despite its faults, it has many assets. There is also more than one variety. Coccoloba uvifera is the species most often seen as bonsai. Features such as the exfoliating mottled bark, bronze new leaves, old leaves with red veins and the small flowers and fruit make it almost irresistible.
If you live where Coccolobo grows naturally, tiny seedlings are readily available and can be used as companion plants and shohin. (The words sea grape and seagrape are interchangeable, just a matter of preference.)
Literati, informal upright, cascade and windswept are all style possibilities for a sea grape bonsai. New branches grow quickly. Trunks develop less quickly, so for bonsai, it’s best to begin with a heavy trunk.
Many of the best seagrape bonsai seen in exhibits today are collected from vacant lots and yards -- hopefully not from the shoreline where they are protected.
Branches take well to wiring, but the rapid growth may create depressions sooner than expected. Tie downs are often used when repositioning branches and should have protection where they are attached to the branches. (Place a small piece of rubber or foam between the wire and the branch.)
The sea grape bonsai shown above, is one I began from a yamadori. I sold it to Bob Hulnick, Miami, FL. Bob did a great job with the rotting cavity. It really needed help.
Directional pruning is perfect for trimming this tropical. The alternating leaf buds are obvious and there is no doubt which way the new growth will proceed. By cutting directionally, leaves that ‘stick up’ can be avoided.
More than on many other bonsai, the position of the large leaves is important on seagrape bonsai.
The large leaves on this plant will reduce greatly by removing them a couple of times a season. In nature, they average 25cm / 9.8 inches in diameter. I have personally reduced them on large specimens to 2-3 inches.
(New leaves are a beautiful bronze color.)
Many years ago, during an exhibit critique, John Naka admired a sea grape as bonsai, but said there were "too many leaves.”
He reminded us -- “because of their size, leaves should almost be considered as tertiary branches.” Even when reduced, three or four leaves may create a more attractive pad than a full cluster.
The “grapes” of this plant are quite showy, are colorful and hang in clusters. Bonsai fruit trees are very desirable.
However, it may not be easy to have a fruiting seagrape bonsai.
The plant is dioecious – male and female flowers on separate plants are required to bear fruit.
In the tropics, it's possible there will be sea grape plants nearby. I had a large hedge of sea grape trees and my bonsai did bear fruit.
One bonsai produced somewhat dead looking flower stalks. Every year it also had at least one small cluster of green fruit, which never ripened. (It was a male.) The female has full clusters that matured (as shown here.)
Because of the large leaves and male/female flowering – unfortunately, folks outside of tropical and sub-tropical regions may find this tree problematic as bonsai.