I spent most of today working on correcting the UV map for the coral. The reasoning for this was an attempt to have the shader's progression up the coral correlate better with the contours of the geometry.
The methodology seemed straightforward: Cut apart the UV map at each split zone, modify the UVs to give a flat-on shape, straighten everything out. As can be seen in the picture below, the new strategy allows the gradient map to better follow the flow of the model. The main reason for this was that on tests the model's gradient colour was static, so to give the effect of older parts of the coral darkening I had to animate the shader parameters.
Using a shader I think gives me some freedoms, as it means I do not have to completely unfold the model in order to get the desired result and anywhere that appears non-existent (such as side-on faces) on the UV plane is not stretched to moment-ruining distortion.
The effects are subtle, but the model is certainly proving complex as working on it ate up most of the day. Nonetheless this is time that might be useful. Even if we have to use a playblast for our animation, the effect is still there in the workspace and therefore will be visible on the playblast.
It's not quite finished yet, perhaps an hour or two to finish the final branches on Tuesday and I can move on to other tasks. So far the shader works okay although I might need more difference in coloration for the effect to be noticeable. While working I had noticed that the topmost buds (that have been mapped) aren't actually sprouting, indicating I missed a step. Fortunately this hiccup is hardly noticeable on the model and probably will remain such when the structure is used in the animation.