What is Bonsai Art?

Bonsai defined

The word “Bon-sai” (often misspelled as bonzai or banzai) is a Japanese term which, literally translated, means “planted in a container”. This art form is derived from an ancient Chinese horticultural practice, part of which was then redeveloped under the influence of Japanese Zen Buddhism.

It has been around for well over a thousand years. The ultimate goal of growing a Bonsai is to create a miniaturized but realistic representation of nature in the form of a tree. Bonsai are not genetically dwarfed plants, in fact, any tree species can be used to grow one.

What is Bonsai
Bonsai “Akirafutokoro Prince” (706 AD). Source: Ritsumeikan University.

What is a Bonsai tree exactly?

Techniques such as pinching buds, pruning and wiring branches, and carefully restricting but not abandoning fertilizers are used to limit and redirect healthy growth. Most commonly kept under four feet (or about a meter) in height, Bonsai are not genetically dwarfed plants. However, plants with smaller leaves do make these compositions easier to design. In fact, any plant species that has a woody stem or trunk, grows true branches, can be successfully grown in a container to restrict its roots/food storage capability, and has smaller or reducible-leaves can be used to create a Bonsai.

Look around at your trees, bushes, hedges, the copses in your yard or park, plants in the nursery or wild landscape – essentially any of those can be starter material. Carefully collected during the appropriate growing or dormant season with proper permission, your composition is begun. Most native plants can be grown outdoors; material from more tropical climates needs at least some protection from the elements in the temperate zones. In our Bonsai tree species guide you can find more information about specific care per species. Or use this guide to identify your Bonsai tree species in two steps.

Bonsai size classifications

The ultimate goal of Bonsai is to create a realistic depiction of nature. As a Bonsai gets smaller (even down to a few inches/centimeters) it increasingly becomes abstract, as opposed to resembling nature in a more precise way. Several classifications of Bonsai have been put forward, and although the exact size classifications are disputed, they help to gain understanding of the aesthetic and botanical aspects of Bonsai. The classifications are originally based on the number of men needed to lift the actual tree.

The size classifications, increasing in size
Keshitsubo: 1-3″ (3-8cm)
Shito: 2-4″ (5-10cm)
Mame: 2-6″ (5-15cm)
Shohin: 5-8″ (13-20cm)
Komono: 6-10″ (15-25cm)
Katade-mochi: 10-18″ (25-46cm)
Chumono / Chiu: 16-36″ (41-91cm)
Omono / Dai: 30-48″ (76-122cm)
Hachi-uye: 40-60″ (102-152cm)
Imperial: 60-80″ (152-203cm)

Read more about the smallest trees in the Shohin and Mame Bonsai article.

IV Ka Japanese Bonsai history
Bonsai for sale in a market, Japan.

Bonsai definition

The Chinese characters for their older dwarf potted tree landscapes were adopted to name the Japanese art-form. Bonsai in Japanese is written as: 盆栽. In short, the definition of Bonsai can be explained as:

盆栽 - Bon-sai Japanese character

“Bon” [left character] is a dish or thin bowl (“a modified vessel which has been divided or cut down from a deeper form”).

“Sai” [right character] is a tree or other growing plant which is planted – “planted,” as would be a halberd or spear or pike stuck into the ground.

“Bonsai” thus means or denotes “a tree which is planted in a shallow container”.

Bonsai meaning

We now know the literal translation of Bonsai is “tree in pot”, but what is the meaning of a Bonsai tree? A Bonsai tree is a replication of nature, in the form of a miniature tree, without displaying the human intervention too clearly.

The connotations or added/implied Bonsai tree meanings include:
A general tree-like shape or style (although not necessarily natural to that type of plant growing full-size in the wild).
A profile that is not as detailed as a photographically-real tree but has just enough features to easily suggest a full-grown tree.
Relative smallness, compared with those same types of trees outside of the container, for ease of transport and ability to keep nearby.
A sense of naturalness which has been subtly accentuated by human intervention but which is not spoiled by stark evidence of human interaction.
A particular representation of something much more than itself, and thus allowing each viewer to interpret what is shown and to build-upon this based on his or her own experiences and memories.
Something so valued that it has received care for virtually every day of its [hopefully long] containerized life.
Something held in such high regard that it was allowed to be brought temporarily into the house for honored guests even though it contained soil from the garden.
A portable oasis and transportable miniature garden which can represent the seasons and vast or favorite landscapes close-at-hand for meditation or contemplation assistance.
These are just a few points, it is up to you to decide what Bonsai means to you.

Read more about the history and origins of Bonsai.

Bonsai origin and history
Reproduction by Takao Itabashi, original by Takakane Takashina. Poetry by Mototada Takatsukasa and others. Source: Ritsumeikan University.

Horticultural practice, or art form?

Bonsai-in-training (also known as “potensai,” potential Bonsai) should point to a future, more mature creation which the artist, at least, has somewhat in mind. And because these are made with living, growing things, those future piece are never complete or finished. They will be presented within certain biological parameters, subject to health issues or remodeling by the tree with the caretakers’ assistance. The oldest and longest-containerized Bonsai because of natural changes can undergo several different styles throughout their long lives. These trees can, in fact, live longer than their full-size counterparts because of our increased attention to their health, water and nutritional needs, protection from weather extremes, injuries needing care, or pest infestations requiring containment or removal. In our Top 10: Greatest Bonsai trees we have included an 800 year-old tree. The best Bonsai – whether a single tree or a multi-plant and rock landscape composition – touch us, make us take notice, stop us as they catch our experience and imaginations to show us something new.

Thick trunks, textured bark, an interplay of twisting live wood and deadwood, surface roots, branch and twig ramification, foliage pads, relatively small leaves or needles, a very complementary and relatively shallow container, tiny fruit or cones or flowers – these are just a few of the more obvious features that can be used to help portray a miniature landscape. They are not all needed or possible in any one given composition, and they cannot simply be included “just because.” A true master artisan knows, feels what is needed. And his or her creation touches us, also. Those true masterpieces are the ones which, when you first look at them, can momentarily take your breath away and raise a smile. The earliest Bonsai were collected in the wild and were interestingly-shaped specimens which told of many adventures or challenges during their long-lives growing exposed to the elements. As their availability decreased during the centuries, landscape and nursery plants were tried and experimented with. Eventually, it was learned how to shape the trees to resemble naturally-sculpted specimens.

Bonsai challenges our gardening skills, artistic aesthetics and design capabilities.

Bonsai are a blend of horticultural knowledge and art. As one’s experience with a given type of tree increases, concern about keeping the plant alive and healthy can take a backseat to concern about a particular design. The best, ideal, masterpiece compositions seem natural, without artifice or affectation. They don’t call attention directly to the artist; they don’t deliberately show off their features (or flaws). Read more about compositions at the Bonsai styles article.

As with all human crafts/hobbies/arts, Bonsai can be enjoyed by oneself or shared with others. They can be made for personal enjoyment or profit from sale. They can be designed quickly with little experience or developed over a period of time with increasing personal expertise and exposure to the creations of other enthusiasts and artists. And any combination of these characteristics.

Bonsai can challenge one’s own gardening skills, artistic aesthetics and design capabilities, time and monetary investment, and storage and display parameters. Bonsai truly are/can be much more than just “miniature Japanese trees.” They can be as inexpensive as a collected “volunteer” sapling in one’s own yard put in a plastic pot to a pricey award-winning specimen imported from overseas with an antique container. The range of this hobby/art is one of the appealing features of Bonsai. Click here for an introduction on how to grow a Bonsai yourself.

Containers for Bonsai

The containers for these trees can be an interest in themselves. Traditionally made in China and then Japan, these shallow containers of mostly fired earthenware are increasingly crafted by both professional and amateur artisans around the world. The matching up of a pot to a designed tree can be a wonderful challenge, for the pot must support the tree as well as be an attractive but non-intrusive frame to the Bonsai’s picture. Earth tones and not-so-garish decorations distinguish traditional Japanese pots from the Chinese models. And containers for cascading trees are the one exception to the shallow pot rule: these tall, narrow containers must provide adequate space for roots and a balanced center of gravity for trees designed to appear to be hanging down from the side of a mountain or cliff. More info about Bonsai pot selection here.

Bonsai, what is it?
Prince Zhang Huai tomb mural (AD 706), with miniature trees. Source: Ritsumeikan University

Closely related arts

While “Bonsai“ specifically refers to dwarf potted trees based on the Japanese model, it is also used as a generic term for related art-forms in other countries, which include but are not limited to the following:
Penjing are the older and original form of Chinese miniature landscapes. They usually include rocks to represent mountains, hills, and cliffs. Sometimes they are even all the way up to 3 meters or 10′ tall. These larger compositions are planted in non-movable concrete containers on permanent display.
Saikei are the newer and smaller Japanese versions of Penjing. These are made with rocks, small plants/ground-covers, and underdeveloped trees (which could someday become independently potted Bonsai).
Hòn non bô are Vietnamese miniature landscapes from 0.3 to 7.6 m (1′ to 25′) high, made with rocks, plants and water imitating island scenery, mountains and surroundings.
Mai-dăt are the Thai compositions which are more angular and symbolic, somewhat likened to stylized dancers’ poses.

Some distinct shapes are also seen in Bonsai created to reflect native trees in North America, South Africa, and Australia, for instance.

Then there are other key display options. Accent and companion plants are smaller, separately-potted compositions which are placed near to the main Bonsai so as to provide scale or seasonal theme to the principle tree.

The most formal display setting is a Tokonoma displays, an elevated alcove whose rear wall usually holds a hanging scroll. The combination of the scroll, Bonsai, and accent plant or viewing stone are designed to present a specific theme.

Viewing stones or Suiseki are relatively small natural rocks which resemble miniature mountains, cliffs, islands, huts, animals, or other shapes. The best of these have custom-carved bases for better display.

Read more about arts related to Bonsai.

This is a current interpretation of this gardening interest. As enthusiasm and experience with this further spreads around the world, additional meanings, appreciations and materials will be added to the overall body that comprises Bonsai. More of the local woody plants and new native styles continue to be applied to the designs of Bonsai. It is constantly developing and each of us contributes to what is this dynamic art-form. Author: Robert J. Baran (Bonsai researcher and historian).

History
of Bonsai

History and origin of Bonsai

The origin of Bonsai

Although the word ‘Bon-sai’ is Japanese, the art it describes originated in the Chinese empire. By the year 700 AD the Chinese had started the art of ‘pun-sai’ using special techniques to grow dwarf trees in containers.

Originally only the elite of the society practiced pun-tsai with native-collected specimens and the trees where spread throughout China as luxurious gifts. During the Kamakura period, the period in which Japan adopted most of China’s cultural trademarks, the art of growing trees in containers was introduced into Japan. The Japanese developed Bonsai along certain lines due to the influence of Zen Buddhism and the fact that Japan is only 4% the size of mainland China. The range of landscape forms was thus much more limited. Many well-known techniques, styles and tools were developed in Japan from Chinese originals. Although known to a limited extent outside Asia for three centuries, only recently has Bonsai truly been spread outside its homelands.

History of Bonsai in China

Shallow basins or flattened bowls – “pen” or “pan” or “pun” – had been made out of earthenware in what we now call China since about 5,000 years ago. A thousand years later during the Chinese Bronze Age, these were among the chosen shapes to be recreated in bronze for religious and political ceremonial purposes. About 2,300 years ago, the Chinese Five Agents Theory (water, fire, wood, metal, and earth) spun off the idea of the potency of replicas in miniature. By recreating a mountain, for example, on a reduced scale, a student could focus on its magical properties and gain access to them. The further the reproduction was in size from the original, the more magically potent it was likely to be. Two hundred years later, importations of new aromatics and incenses took place under the Han Emperor because of newly opened trading with its neighbors. A new type of vessel was created, incense burners in the form of the mountain peaks which rose above the waves and symbolized the abodes of the Immortals, the then-popular idea of the mythic Islands of the Blessed. Primarily crafted out of bronze, ceramic or gilded bronze, some of these burners rested on small pen dishes to either catch hot embers or to hold a miniature symbolic ocean. The removable lids to these burners often were covered in stylized portrayals of legendary figures climbing the sides of forested hills. From the perforations in the lids the incense smoke arose out of the cave openings like the mystic vapors in the full-size mountains. It is thought that some later lids made out of stone may have been found with lichens or moss already attached – natural miniature landscapes.

The idea of the potency of replicas in miniature date back 2300 years in China

From about the year 706 AD comes the tomb paintings for Crown Prince Zhang Huai which included depictions of two ladies-in-waiting offering miniature rockery landscapes with small plants in shallow dishes. By this time there were the earliest written descriptions of these pun wan – tray playthings. As the creation and care of these was somewhat already advanced, the maturation of the art had taken place (but its documentation has not yet been discovered by us).

The earliest collected and then containerized trees are believed to have been peculiarly-shaped and twisted specimens from the wilds. These were “sacred” as opposed to “profane” because the trees could not be used for any practical, ordinary purposes such as lumber. Their grotesque forms were reminiscent of yoga-type postures which repeatedly bent-back on themselves, re-circulating vital fluids and said to be the cause of long-life.

Over the centuries, different regional styles would be developed throughout the large country with its many varied landscapes; earthenware and ceramic containers would replace the porcelain ones displayed on wooden stands; and attempts would be made to shape the trees with bamboo frameworks or brass wire or lead strips. Many poets and writers each made at least one description of tree and/or mountainous miniature landscapes, and many painters included a dwarfed potted tree as a symbol of a cultivated man’s lifestyle. After the 16th century these were called pun tsai or “tray planting.” The term pun Ching (“tray landscape,” now called Penjing) didn’t actually come into usage until the 17th century.

Miniature landscape from Gothaer Penjing Album, Canton, c.1800

Miniature landscape from Gothaer Penjing Album, Canton, c.1800, for export to Europe

History of Bonsai in Japan

It is believed that the first tray landscapes were brought from China to Japan at least twelve hundred years ago (as religious souvenirs). A thousand years ago, the first lengthy work of fiction in Japanese included this passage: “A [full-size] tree that is left growing in its natural state is a crude thing. It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire the ability to move one”. Read the article about Bonsai tree meaning for more information.

The first graphic portrayals of these in Japan were not made until about eight hundred years ago. All things Chinese fascinated the Japanese, and at some point the Chinese Chan Buddhism (Indian meditative Dyhana Buddhism crossed with native Chinese Daoism) also was imported and became Zen Buddhism in Japan. Finding beauty in severe austerity, Zen monks – with less land forms as a model — developed their tray landscapes along certain lines so that a single tree in a pot could represent the universe. The Japanese pots were generally deeper than those from the mainland, and the resulting gardening form was called hachi-no-ki, literally, the bowl’s tree. A folktale from the late 1300s, about an impoverished samurai who sacrificed his last three dwarf potted trees to provide warmth for a traveling monk on a cold winter night, became a popular Noh theatre play, and images from the story would be depicted in a number of media forms, including woodblock prints, through the centuries.

What is Bonsai
Bonsai “Akirafutokoro Prince” (706 AD). Source: Ritsumeikan University.

Everyone from the military leader shoguns to ordinary peasant people grew some form of tree or azalea in a pot or abalone shell. By the late eighteenth century a show for traditional pine dwarf potted trees was begun to be held annually in the capital city of Kyoto. Connoisseurs from five provinces and the neighboring areas would bring one or two plants each to the show in order to submit them to the visitors for ranking or judging. The town of Takamatsu (home of Kinashi Bonsai village) was already growing fields of partly-shaped dwarf pines for a major source of income.

Around the year 1800, a group of scholars of the Chinese arts gathered near the city of Osaka to discuss recent styles in miniature trees. Their dwarf trees were renamed as “Bonsai” (the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese term pun-tsai) in order to differentiate them from the ordinary hachi-no-ki which many persons cared for. The bon or pen is shallower than the Hachi bowl. This shows that at least some growers had better success with the horticultural needs of dwarf potted trees in smaller containers. Bonsai was now seen as a matter of design, the craft approach replacing the religious/mythical approach of tradition.

Different sizes and styles were developed over the next century; catalogs and books about the trees, tools, and pots were published; some early formal shows were held. Copper and iron wire replaced hemp fibers for shaping the trees. Containers mass-produced in China were made to Japanese specifications and the number of hobbyists grew.

At the second Kokufu Bonsai Ten, December 1934

At the second Kokufu Bonsai Ten, December 1934

Following the Great Kanto Earthquake which devastated the Tokyo area in 1923, a group of thirty families of professional growers resettled twenty miles away in Omiya and set up what would become the center of Japanese Bonsai culture; Omiya Bonsai village. In the 1930s as formal displays of Bonsai became recognized, an official annual show was allowed at Tokyo’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The long recovery from the Pacific War saw Bonsai become mature and cultivated as an important native art. Apprenticeship programs, greater numbers of shows, books and magazines, and classes for foreigners spread the word. The use of custom power tools matched with an intricate knowledge of plant physiology allowed a few masters to move from the craft approach to a truly artistic-designing phase of the art.

Recently, Bonsai – seen too often as just a tired pastime for the elderly – now even has a version becoming popular among the younger generation with easy-to-care-for mini-trees and landscapes, unwired and wilder-looking, using native plants.

History of Bonsai in the West

In 1604, there was a description in Spanish of how Chinese immigrants in the tropical islands of the Philippines were growing small ficus trees onto hand-sized pieces of coral. The earliest-known English observation of dwarf potted trees (root-over-rock in a pan) in China/Macau was recorded in 1637. Subsequent reports during the next century also from Japan were root-over-rock specimens. Dozens of travelers included some mention of dwarf trees in their accounts from Japan or China. Many of these were repeated in book reviews and excerpted articles in widely distributed magazines. Japanese dwarf trees were in the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876, the Paris Expositions of 1878 and 1889, the Chicago Expo of 1893, the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, the 1910 Japan-Britain Exhibition, and at the 1915 San Francisco Exposition.

The first European language book (French) entirely about Japanese dwarf trees was published in 1902, and the first in English in 1940. Yoshimura and Halford’s Miniature Trees and Landscapes was published in 1957. It would become known as “Bible of Bonsai in the West,” with Yuji Yoshimura being the direct link between Japanese classical Bonsai art and progressive Western approach which resulted in elegant, refined adaptation for the modern world. John Naka from California extended this sharing by teaching in person and in print first in America, and then around the world further emphasizing the use of native material.

It was by this time that the West was being introduced to landscapes from Japan known as saikei and a resurgence from China as Penjing. Compositions with more than a single type of tree became accepted and recognized as legitimate creations.

Bonsai spread to the West in the late 19th century

Over the years, slight innovations and improvements have been developed, primarily in the revered old Bonsai nurseries in Japan, and these have been brought over bit-by-bit to our countries by visiting teachers or returning traveler enthusiasts. Upon their return Japan, teachers would immediately try out a new technique or two in front of students at previously scheduled workshops. The new Japanese techniques could then be disseminated further and this living art form continued to be developed.

Most of the earlier books in European languages, for the most part, leaned more towards basic horticultural knowledge and techniques for keeping the trees alive. Western science has been increasing our awareness of the needs and processes of the living trees and other plants in our compositions. At the same time, published material has shifted towards explaining the aesthetics involved in styling and shaping. Large permanent collections began to be increasingly set up around the world, including Scotland, Hungary, Australia, and Korea, and numerous shows, exhibitions and conventions became annual events for enthusiasts and the general public.

The Karate Kid movies were released. In their own way they spurred many young people to investigate our art/hobby. Read more about Bonsai in the Karate Kid movie.

“Mica pots” originated by this time out of Korea and independent potters were trying their hands at making ceramic pots, including non-standard designs. In 1992 the first Internet Bonsai website was started with the alt.Bonsai newsgroup and the next year saw rec.arts.Bonsai, the forerunner of the Internet Bonsai Club. The first Bonsai club website came about less than three years later.

Read more about the definition and meaning of Bonsai.

Conclusion

There are over 1200 books in 26 languages about Bonsai and related arts. There have been over 50 print periodicals in various tongues, and five on-line magazines just in English. Hundreds of web sites, over a hundred each discussion forums, on-line club newsletters, and blogs can be studied. Constantly popping up are references on TV, in movies and commercials, and general fiction and non-fiction. This is truly a worldwide interest with an estimated thousand clubs meeting anywhere from once a year to two or three times per month, all with their share of politics, personalities and passions. Membership might be close to a hundred thousand in over a hundred counties and territories, with non-associated enthusiasts totaling perhaps ten million more.

So the next time you prune a branch, wire it or re-pot your tree, reflect that what you are doing is continuing a thousand plus year tradition. In your own way you are exploring and composing a miniature version of your universe. Author: Robert J. Baran (Bonsai researcher and historian).

Bonsai styles

Styles, shapes and forms explained

Bonsai shapes and styles

Over the years many styles to classify Bonsai trees have been advanced, closely resembling circumstances in nature. These styles are open to personal interpretation and creativity, meaning that trees do not necessarily need to conform to any form.

Still, the styles are important to gain a basic understanding of shapes and should serve as guidelines to successfully train miniature trees.

Hokidachi (broom) Bonsai style

Broom style Bonsai (Hokidachi)

The broom style is suited for deciduous trees with extensive, fine branching. The trunk is straight and upright and does not continue to the top of the tree; it branches out in all directions at about 1/3 the height of the tree. The branches and leaves form a ball-shaped crown which is also a stunning sight during winter months.

Chokkan (formal upright) Bonsai style

Formal upright Bonsai style (Chokkan)

The formal upright style is a very common form of Bonsai. This style often occurs in nature, especially when the tree is exposed to lots of light and does not face the problem of competing trees. For this style, tapering of the upright-growing trunk must be clearly visible. The trunk must therefore be thicker at the bottom and must grow increasingly thinner with the height. At about 1/4 of the total length of the trunk, branching should begin. The top of the tree should be formed by a single branch; the trunk should not span the entire height of the tree.

Moyogi (informal upright) Bonsai style

Informal upright Bonsai style (Moyogi)

The informal upright style is common in both nature and in the art of Bonsai. The trunk grows upright roughly in the shape of a letter ‘S’ and at every turn branching occurs. Tapering of the trunk must be clearly visible, with the base of the trunk thicker than the higher portion

Shakkan (leaning or slanting) Bonsai style

Slanting Bonsai style (Shakan)

As a result of the wind blowing in one dominant direction or when a tree grows in the shadow and must bend toward the sun, the tree will lean in one direction. With Bonsai, the leaning style should grow at an angle of about 60 – 80 degrees relative to the ground. The roots are well developed on one side to keep the tree standing. On the side toward which the tree is leaning, the roots are clearly not as well developed. The first branch grows opposite the direction of the tree, in order to create a sense of visual balance. The trunk can be slightly bent or completely straight, but still be thicker at the bottom than at the top.

Kengai (cascade) Bonsai style

Cascade Bonsai style (Kengai)

A tree living in nature on a steep cliff can bend downward as a result of several factors, like snow or falling rocks. These factors cause the tree to grow downwards. For bonsai trees it can be difficult to maintain a downward-growing tree because the direction of growth opposes the tree’s natural tendency to grow upright. Cascade Bonsai are planted in tall pots. The tree should grow upright for a small stretch but then bend downward. The crown of the tree usually grows above the rim of the pot, but the subsequent branches alternate left and right on the outermost curves of an S-shaped trunk. These branchings should grow out horizontally in order to maintain balance of the tree.

Han Kengai (semi cascade) Bonsai style

Semi cascade Bonsai style (Han-kengai)

The semi-cascade style, just like the cascade style, is found in nature on cliffs and on the banks of rivers and lakes. The trunk grows upright for a small distance and then bends downwards/sidewards. Unlike the cascade style, the semi-cascade trunk will never grow below the bottom of the pot. The crown is usually above the rim of the pot while subsequent branching occurs below the rim.

Bunjingi (literati) Bonsai style

Literati Bonsai style (Bunjingi)

In nature this style of tree is found in areas densely populated by many other trees and competition is so fierce that the tree can only survive by growing taller then all others around it. The trunk grows crookedly upward and is completely without branching because the sun only hits the top of the tree. To make sure that it looks even tougher, some branches are “Jinned” (without bark). When the bark has been removed from one side of the trunk, the trunk is referred to as a “Shari”. The idea is to demonstrate that the tree has to struggle to survive. These trees are often placed in small, round pots.

Fukinagashi (windswept) Bonsai style

Windswept Bonsai style (Fukinagashi)

The windswept style also is a good example of trees that must struggle to survive. The branches as well as the trunk grow to one side as if the wind has been blowing the tree constantly in one direction. The branches grow out on all sides of the trunk but will all eventually be bent to one side.

Sokan (double trunk) Bonsai style

Double trunk style Bonsai (Sokan)

The double trunk style is common in nature, but is not actually that common in the art of Bonsai. Usually both trunks will grow out of one root system, but it is also possible that the smaller trunk grows out of the larger trunk just above the ground. The two trunks will vary in both thickness and length, the thicker and more developed trunk grows nearly upright, while the smaller trunk will grow out a bit slanted. Both trunks will contribute to a single crown of leaves/canopy.

Kabudachi (multi trunk) Bonsai style

Multitrunk Bonsai style (Kabudachi)

In theory the multi trunk style is the same as the double trunk style, but with 3 or more trunks. All trunks grow out of a single root system, and it truly is one single tree. All the trunks form one crown of leaves, in which the thickest and most developed trunk forms the top.

Yose Ue (forest or group planting) Bonsai style

Forest Bonsai style (Yose-ue)

The forest style looks a lot like the multi-trunk style, but the difference is that it is comprised of several trees rather than one tree with several trunks. The most developed trees are planted in the middle of a large and shallow pot. On the sides a few smaller trees are planted to contribute to one single crown. The trees are planted not in a straight line but in a staggered pattern, because this way the forest will appear more realistic and natural. For inspiration, check the Bonsai forests top 7.

seki Joju (rock planting) Bonsai style

Growing on a rock Bonsai style (Seki-joju)

On rocky terrain, trees are forced to search for nutrient rich soil with their roots, which can often be found in cracks and holes. The roots are unprotected before they reach the ground so they must protect themselves from the sun: a special bark grows around them. With Bonsai the roots grow over a rock into the pot, so caring for this tree isn’t really different from caring for any other style. You will find Juniper Bonsai are suitable for this style, sometimes even tropicals like the Ficus Bonsai as well.

Ishisuki (growing on rock) Bonsai style

Growing in a rock Bonsai style (Ishisuki)

In this style the roots of the tree are growing in the cracks and holes of the rock. This means that there is not much room for the roots to develop and absorb nutrients. Trees growing in rocks will never look really healthy, thus it should be visible that the tree has to struggle to survive. It is important to fertilize and water often, because there is not much space available to store water and nutrients. The rock in which the Bonsai grows is often placed in a shallow pot, which is sometimes filled with water or fine gravel. For some examples, see the Rock Bonsai top 8.

Ikadabuki (raft) Bonsai style

Raft Bonsai style (Ikadabuki)

Sometimes a cracked tree can survive by pointing its branches upward. The old root system can provide the branches with enough nutrients to survive. After a while new roots will start growing, eventually taking over the function of the old root system. The old branches which now point into the air develop into trunks with multiple branchings as a result of the increased influx of nutrients. These new trunks contribute to one single canopy.

Sharimiki (deadwood) Bonsai style

Shari Bonsai style (Sharimiki)

As time passes, some trees develop bald or barkless places on their trunks as a result of harsh weather conditions. The bald part usually begins at the place where the roots emerge from the ground, and grows increasingly thinner as it continues up the trunk. Intense sunlight will bleach these parts, forming a very characteristic part of the tree. With Bonsai the bark is removed with a sharp knife and the barkless spot is treated with lime sulfur in order to speed up the bleaching process. Click here for an image of all Bonsai styles.

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