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bon·sai (bone-sigh) n.

Etymology: Japanese, literally, tray planting; a potted plant (as a tree) dwarfed and trained to an artistic shape by special methods of culture

Also: the art of growing such a plant

Plural: bonsai

Bonsai calligraphy by Eri Takase


The Classic Bonsai Styles

As someone learning to appreciate the art of bonsai, it is extremely valuable to learn about the classic styles of trees. These styles are rarely possible to follow to the letter, but they were something to be aspired to at all times. Knowing the basic styles by name allows us to talk to fellow bonsai enthusiasts and describe our trees in general terms.

Colin Lewis, noted author of bonsai books (more about Colin here), has given me permission to share his descriptions — the clearest I've found to date:

Formal Upright - Chokkan

Formal Upright

"As the name implies, this is the most formalised of all styles. The trunk must be ramrod straight and boly upright, tapering uniformly from base to tip. The branches should be arranged alternately either side of the trunk with every third branch to the rear. The branches should diminish in thickness and in length from the lowest one upwards, and should be either horizontal or sloping downwards."

Informal Upright - Moyogi

Informal Upright

"This is a variation on the formal upright style but is much easier to create. The rules for the branch structure are the same but the trunk may have any number of curves, both from left to right and from front to back. The branches should ideally grow from the outside of the curves and never on the inside as this creates a shock to the eye. The apex should lean towards the front."

Slanting - Shakan


"Another variation on the formal upright style, except that it is not upright. The trunk is usually straight-ish, although it may have a gentle curve or two. The placement of the branches needs to be carefully thought out in order to stabilise the design and to prevent the tree looking as if it is about to fall over."

Windswept - Fukinagashi


"Although this is one of the more naturalistic styles, it is also one of the most dramatic. The aim is to capture the dynamic shape and movement of a tree living high in the mountains or on a clifftop, where it is constantly exposed to high prevailing winds. There are no rules governing the trunk shape or location of branches, but in spite of this freedom this is one of the most difficult styles to create successfully."

Semi-Cascade - Han Kengai


"Both this style and the cascade style depict trees clinging to a cliff face, where they are beaten by snow, wind and rockfalls. The trunk should have dramatic curves and taper, and the branches should ideally also cascade from the trunk. Tradition states that the inverted 'apex' should be directly below the centre of the trunk. The one unbreakable rule is that the lowest point must be below the rim of the pot, but not its base."

Cascade - Kengai


"The difference between this style and the semi-cascade is that here the trunk must fall below the base of the pot. All other criteria are the same. Good cascades are rare because of the difficulty in maintaining vigour in the lower parts of the tree, opposing its natural urge to grow upwards."

Driftwood - Sharimiki


"Echoing the natural appearance of mountain junipers, which product areas of bare, sun-bleached wood as they age, this style is seldom successfully created from other species. The focal point is the beautiful and dramatic shapes of the grain in the exposed wood. These shapes may be natural but are more often elaborately carved and then bleached and preserved with lime-sulphur. The foliage masses, although acknowledging some of the rules of other styles, serve more as a foil or frame to the driftwood."

Broom - Hôkidachi


"This style was modelled on the natural habit of the zelkova and is seldom successfully used for other than related species, since it works best with trees bearing alternate foliage. All branches should emerge from the top of a straight trunk and fork at regularly diminishing intervals until a network of fine shoots at the tips forms an even-domed crown."

Literati - Bunjingi


"This style is reminiscent of ancient pines, which tend to shed their lower branches as they get old. It gets its name from the calligraphic style of ancient Chinese artists. The focal point of the design is the trunk, so it should be full of character. The branches are limited to the uppermost part of the trunk and should bear just enough foliage to keep the tree healthy and vigorous."

Root Over Rock - Sekijôju

Root Over Rock

"In rocky terrain the scarce soil is constantly being eroded, exposing the rocks and the roots of the trees growing amongst them. This style depicts such a tree whose roots, as they thicken, cling to any rocks beneath them. The tree itself can be of any style, although broom and formal upright styles look out of place. The most important factor is that the roots should cling tightly to the rock and should have a mature texture."

Root On Rock - Ishitsuki

Root On Rock

"The tree itself may follow any style, the significance is that a rock is used instead of a pot, with the roots growing in a crevice or hollow. The rock may stand in a shallow dish of soil or, better still, in a water tray. Mixed plantings of pines with red maples or dwarf quince and azalea are particularly successful."

Sinuous Raft - Netsunanari

Sinuous Raft

"As the name suggests, this is a raft planting where the original trunk has attractive, snake-like curves and is exposed to show this feature to its best advantage. It is even acceptable for the old trunk to be above the ground in places. The individual trees may follow any style."

Straight Raft - Ikadabuki

Straight Raft

"Another obvious one: a raft planting where the original trunk lies in a straight line. Most rafts created from nursery stock follow this style because of the difficulty of bending a fairly thick trunk into sinuous curves. In such cases the trunk is usually buried in the soil or covered with moss to disguise its unnatural appearance."

Exposed Root - Neagari

Exposed Root

"Most of us have driven down country lanes where the steep banks either side have been washed away to expose the roots of ancient beech or pine, and this style is based on such cases. The roots, which must have mature bark and interesting shapes, add a dramatic, rugged appearance, so the design of the tree itself should echo this."

Twin Trunk - Sôju

Twin Trunk

"Two trunks, one smaller than the other, joined together at the base. Trunks which divide significantly above the base are unacceptable. The smaller or secondary trunk should be slightly to the rear of the dominant one to enhance the perspective. The trees themselves may follow any appropriate style."

Twisted Trunk - Bankan

Twisted Trunk

"This most unnatural of all bonsai styles has heavy Chinese influence. It became popular for a time earlier this century and was grown in large numbers. Although still popular among some hobbyists, it is seldom accepted in classic circles. The trunk spirals from base to apex while the branch structure follows that of the informal upright."

Clump - Kabudachi


"Any (odd) number of trunks, which must be in a variety of sizes, all growing on the same roots. This may either be created from suckers (shoots arising naturally from the roots) or by cutting off a thick trunk at the base and using the new shoots which spring up from the stump. The trees can be any style. The horticultural advantage of using a clump rather than separate plants is that the 'trees' do not compete for water and nutrients."

Group - Yose-ue


"This style may incorporate any number of trunks from seven up to as many as you like. The main interest is in the interplay between the trunks, which should be of different sizes and should be arranged to give the impression of depth and perspective. No three trunks should form a straight line and no trunk should be obscured by another when viewed from the front."

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