How Bonsai Works

Styles of Bonsai

The goal of bonsai is to create a pleasing specimen that reflects nature as much as possible. This can be an idealized view of nature, or a vision of a more matured, weathered tree that has survived for many years. In styling bonsai, scale is important, as are perspective and symmetry. Different styles of bonsai can represent stately upright trees, trees struggling in the wind, trees with branching trunks and trees that can be grouped to create the look of a forest or copse. Each arrangement is paired with a corresponding bonsai pot that will complement its design. The following established styles of bonsai have very different looks.

  • Upright (Chokkan) is a formal bonsai style incorporating a classically balanced triangular shape, single straight trunk and branches arranged in threes.
  • Moyogi is a less formal upright design that still has a relatively straight silhouette, but can have more sinuous features in the trunk and branches.
  • Slanting (Shakan, Fukinagashi) style bonsai is noted for its leaning trunk, which grows at a 45 degree angle to the base of the tree. The branches will follow the angle of the trunk, with the balancing first branch jutting in the opposite direction in the Shagan style.
  • Cascade (Han-Kengai, Kengai) style bonsai often resembles a lone tree clinging to the side of a rock face that is buffeted by the wind. The lone cypress appearance is dramatic, and showcases the essential value of the appropriate pot in bonsai. Cascade bonsai requires a deeper pot to offset the inherent weight imbalance in the design. This design can either be extreme, with the foliage extending below the rim of the pot (Kengai) or modified to bend parallel with the rim (Han-Kengai), like a tree extending partly over a the side of a cliff.
  • Literati (Bunjin, Bunjingi) style of bonsai is characterized by its focus on perspective. Imagine a tree on a mountaintop viewed from below. The long, narrow trunk and spare top foliage of the literati style recreate that vision of telescoping distance. The sense of height is also emphasized by the use of a small oval or round pot.
  • Broom (Hokidachi) style creates the symmetry and balance of a half-crescent of foliage fanning from a single, straight trunk.
  • Landscape (Saikei) style creates the optical illusion of a miniature scene, complete with rocks, mosses, grasses and even a water feature.
  • Root Over or On Rock (Sekijoju, Ishitsuki) style uses the coiling roots of some tree varieties as design elements, training them over or into rocks as part of an exposed, graphic and rugged structure.
  • Multi-Form (Sokan, Kabudachi, Ikada, Yose-ue) cultivation techniques create an illusion of multiple trees from a single root, or include the actual addition of a number of trees in the same pot. The result is a forest or glade rendered in miniature.

Guiding a tree through life in a pot has its challenges. Next, we'll look at some of the secrets of cultivating bonsai.