Bonsai cultivation has a number of established styles that mimic the natural forms of trees in the wild. Just as no two human beings are absolutely identical, so with Bonsai, no two trees can ever be exactly the same in the forms of style and shapes.
Observe old trees in nature, and you will see plenty of variation. When you want to grow a bonsai tree, you must start by choosing the appropriate style based on your climate and resources.
Choosing a bonsai style is a decision based on the gardener’s skill level and creativity. Whether you’re a beginner or an expert, there is a bonsai style for you.
Bonsai styles were devised essentially for the convenience of enthusiasts. The followers of Bonsai probably found it convenient to refer to the various Bonsai styles rather than describe each one of them in detail.
All the various styles of Bonsai have three broad generic classes. This classification is based on the number of trunks or trees in the Bonsai composition.
These categories are:
- single trunk Bonsai styles
- Multiple trunk Bonsai styles
- Multiple tree or group Bonsai styles
The three broad categories can be subdivided into their more detailed classifications.
Single trunk Bonsai styles
- Formal upright (Chokkan)
- Informal upright (Moyogi)
- Slanting (Shakan)
- Broom (Hokidachi)
- Cascade (Kengai)
- Semi-cascade (Han Kengai)
- Weeping (Shidare-Zukuri)
- Literati (Bunjin)
- Exposed root (Negari)
- Root over rock (Sekjoju)
- Planted on rock (Ishi seki)
Multiple trunk Bonsai styles
- Twin trunk (Sokan)
- Triple trunk (Sankan)
- Multiple trunk (Kabudachi)
- Root connected (Netsunagari)
Multiple tree or group Bonsai styles
- Group planting (Yose ue)
- Planted on rock
- Landscape (sai-kei or pen-jing)
Single trunk styles of Bonsai
Formal upright style
In this style, the trunk of the tree is absolutely straight, rising vertically out of the ground from a radial root system. The trunk should taper very gradually from the base all the way up the tree.
Trees which grow in this fashion are majestic specimens often to be seen in the grounds of stately homes or in the middle of large open fields where they grow unhindered and without having to compete with other trees for food and light.
Although the formal upright style might appear simple and easy to emulate, it is in fact one of the most difficult styles to realize.
Attention to detail is all-important and any little carelessness soon shows up as a major fault.
The arrangement of branches for most Bonsai styles is basically the same.
The cardinal principle to bear in mind is that the front of the tree should always be uncluttered.
The front should be more open than the rear where there should be more branches to provide the foliage density needed to create the illusion of depth and perspective.
The lowermost branch of the tree should start from about one-third of the way up from the base. All the subsequent branches should be positioned evenly around the trunk.
The overall shape of the tree should as far as possible be conical.
The secondary branches and twigs on each of the main branches should resemble the shape of a spear head.
The disposition of the branches should be such that they do not overhang each other, otherwise the lower ones will be deprived of light and eventually wither and die. Sunlight is of course absolutely essential for the health of any tree.
Informal upright Bonsai style
The informal upright style is perhaps the most popular of Bonsai stles. This is because it is much easier to find trees which are not growing absolutely straight.
Most trees have natural kinks or twists in their trunk and are therefore more easily adapted to the informal upright style.
The style is typically characterixed by the lazy S-shape because the informal upright tree is based on the shape of an ‘S’. The positioning of the branches is not quite so straightforward as is the case in the formal upright tree.
The branches must emerge from the trunk at precisely the right positions, namely the outside of the bends or elbows or else the design will not be satisfactory.
They should never start from inside a bend. As in the case of the formal upright design, the overall shape of an informal upright tree should be basically conical.
Slanting Bonsai style
This style is so called because the general slope of the trunk is highly pronounced, certainly more than in the informal upright style.
Whereas in the informal upright style the trunk leans only slightly (between 10 and 20* from the vertical) in the slanting style the slope is about 45* from the vertical. In fact, the slope in the slanting style is so pronounced that it is very aptly known by this name.
Slanting tree has an inherently unstable appearance. However, the feeling of instability can be largely mitigated if the surface roots look convincing enough to give the impression that the tree is well anchored to the soil and therefore incapable of being toppled over.
The slanting style is suitable for both decidous and evergreen trees. However, conifers are on the whole slightly better suited to this style of Bonsai.
Branches should be arranged to lie horizontally or droop slightly downwards, but not upright since this would not be in keeping with the general character of the style.
Windswept Bonsai style
In this style of Bonsai the artist seeks to reproduce the visual effect of a tree which is constantly being blown by the wind. Such trees are a common sight along the coast.
They invariably lean away from the sea because the direction of the prevailing winds is landwards.
The trunk and the branches of a windswept tree lean in one direction only and are often bleached white by the harsh salt-laden winds.
It somehow always manages to survive by bending with the wind, a windswept tree is a symbol of fortitude and tenacity in the face of great adversity.
Indeed, this theme is a familiar one in Bonsai because Bonsai artists through the ages have been inspired by the sight of trees which mirror the indomitable spirit of man.
Jin and Driftwood highlights on a windswept Bonsai always work well because windswept trees in the wild have precisely these features.
Split trunk Bonsai style
This again is a style which is copied directly from nature. As a tree ages, the trunk usually decays giving rise to some very interesting shapes and patterns
Split trunk trees are commonly seen in ancient forests and they are favourite hiding places of small mammals, birds and even children. Split trunk Bonsai do not follow any precise design rules.
The arrangement and disposition of branches are usually natural. A trunk which has been hollowed out needs to be carefully watched as rotting can very quickly set in. If this happens, the rot can spread to the other parts of the tree.
Driftwood Bonsai style
In the driftwood style large sections of the trunk and certain branches are deliberately made to look like bleached driftwood.
This effect may be created either artificially by stripping the bark and cambium from a live tree, or it can be created from a tree that is already partly dead.
The dead portion can be carved using sharp carving tools and later whitened with lime sulphur to give the impression of natural ageing by the sun, wind, and rain. This style is highly demanding aesthetically.
The area of driftwood is usually the centre of interest and the entire design of the tree should be carefully built around this feature. Preservation of the dead wood is achieved by frequent application of lime sulphur during the summer.
This is probably the best way of ensuring that the wood does not rot, if wet or dry rot sets in, it must be carved out to prevent it spreading.
Broom Bonsai style
Like most of the other classical Bonsai styles, the broom style is one which is often seen in nature. The trunk is absolutely straight and the branches are arranged in the shape of an inverted fan-shaped broom.
The broom style is invariably created from deciduous trees. The Zelkova and Chinese elm are the favourite subjects because they produce very delicate branches and twigs which can be appreciated in winter when the trees have lost all their leaves.
Zelkovas in particular lend themselves to this style of Bonsai because the seedlings display a natural tendency to develop multiple forked branches from a very early age.
Cascade Bonsai style
The creation of an attractive cascade Bonsai is an exacting task. To begin with, most trees have a natural tendency to grow upwards, whereas in a cascade, growth has to be encouraged in the opposite direction.
A cascade tree cannot be created by merely bending a pencil-thick seedling over the age of a tall pot for such a tree could never really pass as a cascade Bonsai.
A good cascade Bonsai should preferably have a short conical head but it must have a fairly thick trunk that curves downwards as close as possible to the point where it rises from the pot.
Semi-cascade Bonsai style
The semi-cascade style is a variant of the full cascade style. Broadly speaking, any Bonsai with a horizontal or near-horizontal trunk would qualify as a semi-cascade tree.
Some Bonsai purists would classify all cascade trees that do not extend beyond the base of the pot as semi-cascade specimens. However, this cannot be regarded as a rule since the Chinese, for instance, use very tall pots for their classic cascade trees.
These pots are often 60-90 cm high, and the ends of the cascade trees do not fall below the base of the pot. The semi-cascade style is full of poise and elegance.
In order to grow a Bonsai in pot, You have to know How to grow a Bonsai from seed
Weeping Bonsai style
The weeping style is reserved for trees that have branches that weep naturally. Trees such as the weeping willow, weeping cherry, weeping peach, tamarisk and Caragana arborescens are ideally suited to this type of Bonsai because their full size counterparts exhibit precisely the same habit.
This style of Bonsai was very fashionable, the common varieties used were the weeping peach Bonsai grafted with both red and white flowers. These trees were usually planted in highly coloured, deep round pots.
Weeping peach Bonsai are not so popular today and with the exception of the weeping willow, few weeping trees are now shown at Bonsai exhibitions.
Literati Bonsai style
Of all the Bonsai styles, the literati style is without doubt the most sophisticated both in terms of concept and visual design. This is understandable when one bears in mind the origins of literati style.
The literati style is so called because it is based on the paintings of trees created by the ‘Literati’.
They owe their distinctive shapes to constant exposure to harsh climatic conditions.
Trees with ‘natural’ literati shapes can be found in alpine and arid regions throughout the world.
Pines and Junipers and sometimes deciduous conifers such as larch are the favourite subjects for literati.
Exposed root Bonsai style
This is rather grotesque style of Bonsai and not surprisingly itbis not often encountered today. The roots are deliberately grown above the soil surface and this can be achieved in a number of ways.
The easiest method is to encourage a tree to grow deep into an open and friable soil mixture. The main roots can be trained as if over an invisible piece of rock.
Repeating pruning of the ends of the main roots to be exposed eventually will stimulate the growth of fibrous roots at the point of cutting.
The entire root system should be lifted from time to time so that it can be examined to ensure that it is developing in the desired manner.
The main roots to be exposed should be allowed to grow above the soil surface, leaving only the fine fibrous roots anchored in the pot.
Root over rock Bonsai style
Rocks have always been an integral part of Bonsai tradition. The rocks that are used today with Bonsai are still intended to symbolize mountains and mountain scenery although they are less dramatic than they used to be.
In the root over rock style of Bonsai the rock is now simply an appendage of the tree. The tree, rather than the rock, has become the focus of attention.
This may well be the correct approach from the point of view of Bonsai, but the loss of a certain charm and romanticism is sad. Trees grown in root over rock style are usually admired most for their beautiful roots.
Planted on rock Bonsai style
This style of Bonsai is more in keeping with the original Chinese concept of miniature landscapes in which rocks denote mountain and the Bonsai represent the real trees in miniature.
There is no deliberate attempt here to drape roots over a rock. The tree is merely planted in or on a rock so that it resembles a real tree growing in a natural setting.
The tree should be planted in a suitable crevice without obscuring the rock’s interesting features.
Both young and old trees may be used and the aim is to create a unified composition.
In this style of Bonsai, the rock planting is usually displayed in a flat water basin or a tray filled with sand. Pines, Junipers, Spruces, Larches and cotoneasters are ideal subjects for planting in this style.
Multiple trunk Bonsai style
Twin trunk Bonsai style
The twin trunk style features two trunks with the fork starting from fairly low down the tree. A twin trunk style will not be effective if the second trunk starts too far up the main tree.
Trees which fork naturally from the base make ideal twin trunk Bonsai. They may be created by either air-layering a forked branch of a mature tree or by using nursery or collected material.
In this style, the two trunks must never be exactly the same height as the tree would then look incongruous. It is usual for one trunk to be considerably shorter than the other.
Triple trunk Bonsai style
The triple trunk style is very similar to the twin trunk style, the only difference is being that there are three instead of two trunks. The main trunk is usually the tallest and centrally located with the two subsidiary trunks on either side.
The subsidiary trunks do not have to be the same height as each other, neither does the tallest trunk have to be the central one.
There are many different compositions all pleasing to the eye. Air-layerings and collected trees are a good source for this style of Bonsai.
Multiple trunk Bonsai style
Again this is basically similar to the two previous styles except that there are many more trunks which emanate from the base. Trees which have been ‘stooled‘ are a useful source for multiple trunk Bonsai.
Root connected Bonsai style
This is sometimes referred to as the raft, sinuous or straight line style. In this style of Bonsai, all the individual trees are in fact branches from one main tree, but have over the years been trained to resemble individual trees.
However, they will all still be connected to each other by a single common horizontal root.
Junipers, Pines and trident maples lend themselves to this method of development because they all produce roots very easily from the trunks.
Multiple tree or group Bonsai styles
The group or forest planting style is one of the most natural looking of Bonsai styles. A beautifully composed group can and ought to convey the essence of a real forest.
The trees in a group or foest planting do not have to be grouped tightly together. Two or even three small clumbs in a single composition often add a singular charm and vitality quite different from that of a single massed group.
If certain trees within the group have become too large or have died off, it may be necessary to rearrange the entire planting or even to start again from scratch.
Multiple tree on rock style
Group plantings may sometimes be placed on flat pieces of slate or rock instead of in a shallow container and this can look very beautiful and natural too.
Several trees can also be planted on a vertical plane on an interesting piece of rock to convey the sense of growing out of a cliff face. It’s a such Bonsai styles that almost replicates from nature.
The points to remember in creating this style of group planting are (a) keep the scale of tree and rock in proper proportion, and (b) leave the beautiful parts of the rock exposed to view.
Landscape Bonsai style
The art of sai-kei or pen-jing is a subject in its own right. The scope for creativity is absolutely immense because the limiting factor here is simply the artist’s own imagination.
Tray or potted landscapes are not regarded by some purists as proper Bonsai, but they nonetheless have an important place in the historical and cultural evolution of Bonsai.