Bonsai Styles

Over the years, bonsai enthusiasts have frequently tried to reclassify the styles, and their many sub-divisions, into which plants can be trained. Within the broader classification of single-trunk, multiple-trunk or group plantings, the fifteen styles described in this section are now generally accepted. Once you understand the principles behind these styles, you will have a reference point from which to assess a tree's bonsai potential, and to decide what style suits it.

If you study very carefully the way trees grow in nature, it is possible to design a realistic bonsai without knowing the names of these styles. The names are, however, useful for understanding references in books and magazines, and for describing a bonsai to other enthusiasts. You do not need to learn their Japanese names or origins. Nor do you need to stick slavishly to the precise rules of your chosen style: adapt them to suit a plant's natural habit.

What Style to Select

When you start a bonsai, always remember you are working with a living plant. Look very carefully at its natural characteristics, and you may discern within them a suitable style or styles. Often, you can train a plant into several styles, even if it is basically upright like a beech, or elegantly slender like a maple. If only one style suits a particular plant, you can still interpret it in several different ways.

Shrubs like azaleas that are not free-like in nature have fewer restrictions in the style you choose, but, generally, it is best to base any design on the way a free grows in nature. Beginners should not try to train a bonsai into a style totally unlike a tree's natural growth pattern, although this is possible as you gain more experience.

Once you have chosen your style you should be able to shape the tree into a satisfactory bonsai.

Basic Bonsai Styles

Depending on the angle of the trunk, the five basic bonsai styles are formal upright, informal upright, slanting, semi-cascade, and cascade. In a formal upright, the trunk is straight and vertical; an informal upright has a more sinuous, curving, upright trunk; the entire trunk of a slanting bonsai leans, as much as 45 degrees from the vertical; a semi-cascade bonsai leans still further, finishing at or just below the pot rim; and a cascade falls below the horizontal, often ending beneath the level of the bottom of the pot.

The Literati or Bunjin Style

It is not easy to define the literati style, as it breaks many bonsai rules, but trees trained in this style look as slender and graceful as those in Chinese paintings that inspired the name.

The word literati has a somewhat convoluted origin. The Chinese word wenjen means “scholars practiced in the arts”. Japanese bonsai growers translated this as bunjin and applied it to this elegant style of tree. Bunjin has no English equivalent, so some growers use the name literati, which derives from the Latin word for “literate” or “educated people”.

The trunk of a literati usually twists and curves several times. In nature, such trees often grow on the coast, or in places where they have struggled up to the sunlight through other trees that have since been felled or died. Some Scotch pines grow naturally into this style in old age. In bonsai, you can style most conifers as literati.

A Broom-Style Bonsai

An upturned Japanese broom inspired the shape of a broom-style bonsai. This design has an evenly balanced, domed head of twiggy branches rising out of a straight trunk. Deciduous trees grown in broom style look their best in winter when the delicate branches are leafless.

In an ideal situation in the wild, a conifer might grow into a formal upright tree, but maples, elms and many other finely branched deciduous species will probably become broom-style trees. This restrained, classic style is possibly the most difficult to achieve in bonsai. If you want to attempt it, your best chance of success is to use a finely branched tree like a maple.

Styling on Rock

Single bonsai trees, groups, or landscape plantings may be grown on rock. There are two main types of rock planting. In root-over-rock style, the tree's roots snake over the rock and down into the soil. In clasped-to-rock style, the tree is actually planted on the rock. Style the tree in whichever design seems best suited to the rock.

A Root-Over-Rock Bonsai

This style gives a “close-up” of the tree growing on the rock, featuring the web of exposed roots. Choose a tree with naturally strong roots, also one that grows naturally on rock.

A Clasped-to-Rock Bonsai

In this style, trees can be made to seem “near” or “distant”. An upright rock can be placed in a shallow tray (suiban) of sand or water, or a flat piece of rock or slate used as a pot.

Saikei Style

A saikei or “tray landscape” uses rocks and living plants to depict a landscape in miniature. A saikei planting is usually permanent, but can also be a short-term composition: you can dismantle it and re-use the materials in another saikei, or “promote” the maturing trees to become individual bonsai. A tray landscape called “bonkei” may include artificial plants or no plants at a

Materials such as rocks, grasses, mosses, and sands, and careful attention to scale and proportion, have literally recreated in miniature the natural variations of a landscape.

Root-Connected and Multiple Trunk Styles

In these styles, several trunks emerge from a single root system. Root-connected bonsai may look like a group planting, but are not separate trees; their trunks arise from a common root. A root-connected bonsai has the advantage over a group planting in that, coming from a common rootstock, its leaf shapes, color, and texture are all similar.

In nature, a twin-trunk style often occurs when the base of a tree splits into two trunks. The expression “multiple-trunk” is used to describe root-connected styles with three or more trunks, growing in clump, straight line, and sinuous styles. In clump style, several trunks grow up from the same root. Straight line style occurs when branches of a fallen tree continue to grow vertically. A sinuous style occurs when suckers emerge from surface roots, or a low branch roots into the ground and grows more trunks. In bonsai the ground-level pattern of sinuous style trunks is randomly curved; that of straight line style follows the original trunk line.

A Twin-Trunk Bonsai

In nature, one trunk is usually smaller than the other. Oriental growers call this “father-and-son” or “mother-and-daughter” style. Aim for this effect to avoid the bonsai resembling a slingshot. Often you can train a low branch into a second trunk. The same rules cover three or more trunks.

A Clump-Style Bonsai

Some trees grow naturally in clump formation, each trunk reaching out for its own light. Coppicing (sawing off trees at the ground to grow straight poles for fencing and other construction work) is still practiced commercially and creates similar clumps.

A Sinuous-Style Bonsai

Species with pliable branches and trunks, like yew and pine, are best for creating a sinuous-style bonsai. Also try others, like elm, that tend to throw up suckers from exposed roots.

A Straight-Line Style Bonsai

A tree with lop-sided branches, that is unsatisfactory material for a single bonsai, can provide material for an interesting straight-line design. This is also called raft style.

Group-Planting Style

The aim of a group planting in bonsai is to mimic the effect of a woodland, forest, or grove, or simply several trees growing together. You can use most species for this style, as long as they are ones that would grow together naturally. A group of beeches planted to create the effect of a woodland is very impressive, but a forest of wisteria trees would look ludicrous.

A group planting should look uncontrived. You can more easily achieve a natural effect with an odd number of trees -seven, five, or the minimum of three. It is important to mass together a sufficiently large number of trees to make it difficult to count the trunks. Never create a group of four trees, but you could use fourteen, and forty would look like a real forest.

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