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6 Bonsai Styles or Forms For the Perfect Tree

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One of the many challenges of growing a prize-winning bonsai is trunk development – shaping, tapering, or thickening your bonsai trunk. The aim is always to emulate nature’s tree styles in miniature form.

Starting a tree in a raised bed and systematically reducing its container size, roots, and foliage is a common starting process for styling a bonsai tree. Combine this with growing a sacrificial branch to thicken the trunk girth while using a tourniquet to add taper. 

The true art of bonsai is to replicate tree forms found in nature. Trees grow upright or slanting, in groups, pairs, or alone, out on plains or clinging to the sides of mountains.

They are subject to natural forces – lightning, wind, drought, animals, insects, diseases, and floods. These forces change their shape, strip their bark, and break their branches.

Bonsai Styles and Forms
Bonsai Styles and Forms

Trees in nature gain character as time passes; we call it weathering. When sculpting a tree, bonsai artists look at what nature produces using these principles and try to mimic it, but they also add their own vision to make a beautiful bonsai. Because of this, a bonsai tree is much more than just a tree in a pot.

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Formal and Comic Bonsai Styles

  • Formal or koten
  • Informal (comic) or bunjin
koten bonsai
koten bonsai

There are two main types of bonsai: the formal (koten) classic style and the informal or comic style (bunjin). In the former, the tree’s trunk is wider at the base and tapers off toward the top; in the latter, the style known as “bunjin,” which is more challenging to master, is the exact opposite.

The goal of every bonsai, whether formal or comic, is to make your bonsai trees appear as natural as you can. Let the tree come up with its ideas. Allow the trunk to bend to the right if it does so naturally. Work with it to make it your bonsai’s focal feature.

It is helpful to pay attention to the tree’s natural inclination and to cooperate. Together you’ll produce a stunning design.

Preconceived notions need to be set aside, working with what you have. Every tree is different and uniquely beautiful, and it’s up to you to emphasize its natural traits and unique character.

Above all else, you shouldn’t attempt to train a bonsai to develop unnaturally. Examine the species’ varied natural development patterns before you plant it, and then accentuate certain elements for the best results.

To project the appearance of maturity in your tree’s diminutive form, you should consider how you can depict an aging tree. Even if your tree is still young, you can groom it to make it appear like it has been developing for many years.

The Six Basic Bonsai Styles Based on the Trunk’s Orientation

Tree forms are grouped into five identities which derive their names from the tree’s angle of growth, trunk shape, and the arrangement of their branches. Some tree shapes are not sufficiently unique to warrant a separate category.

These six canonical tree shapes are recognized:

  1. Formal upright or Chokkan
  2. Informal upright or Moyogi
  3. Slanting or Shakan
  4. Full Cascade or Kengai
  5. Semi Cascade or Han-Kengai
  6. Multi-trunk Cascade or Takan-Kengai

The system of styles has a variety of functions, some utilitarian and some purely aesthetic. The most basic and widespread use of styles is as a shorthand for describing bonsai specimens.

The succinct style word, which typically occurs in catalog descriptions and a species identifier, concisely characterizes the bonsai in question.

Similar specimens can be grouped in bonsai competitions for comparative analysis using style names.

The approach simplifies bonsai teaching and learning and offers generally accepted phrases (Canononical) for public communications on bonsai, even when viewing the styles only as descriptive names.

Formal Upright Style | Chokkan

Chokkan Bonsai
Chokkan Bonsai

Formal upright trees thrive in the wild when they are allowed to grow in the open without any stress.

The trunk’s perfect straightness and natural, smooth tapering from the base to the apex are the most crucial requirements for this style.

To appear balanced from any angle, the branches should be symmetrically spaced. It takes a lot of effort to get Chokkan bonsai perfect.

Try growing pines, junipers, and spruces using the Chokkan style.

A third or so of the trunk must be seen from the front for the formal upright design to be effective. You’re stacking two triangles on top of each other – a tapered trunk supporting a larger triangle, the tapering branches – there are no circles or squares.

Typically, branch placement follows a pattern, with the first branch being the longest and emerging square from the trunk a third up. This is the heaviest branch, and the second branch is slightly higher than but opposite the first.

The branch structure tapers and takes on a slightly cone-like shape as it ascends. It can be challenging to perceive the bonsai’s interior structure through the mass of leaves or needles because the top of the tree is typically covered in foliage that is so lush and tightly ramified.

With each new year, the growing tip of the trunk or branch is removed, and a new branch is wired into place to form the apex, giving the branches and trunk of a formal upright bonsai a very distinct taper.

Although this can be difficult, as the trunk develops and the taper becomes more obvious, it gives a magnificent effect.

Informal Upright Style | Moyogi

Moyogi bonsai
Moyogi bonsai

Such trees naturally slant or change their direction to block the wind, provide shade for nearby trees or structures, or move closer to the sun.

A casual upright bonsai should have a trunk that slightly bends to the right or left but never in the viewer’s direction.

This is true for all bonsai-style varieties. When the bonsai is seen from the front, neither the trunk nor the branches should be pointed in the observer’s direction.

For this design, consider a member of the maple family or virtually any decorative conifer. A blossoming tree, such as a pomegranate, will produce a striking outcome.

The main difference between this style and a formal upright bonsai is an allowance for curved trunks and liberty with branch arrangements.

The tree is reminiscent of one shaped by other challenges, causing it to redirect its trunk once or twice, but the outline is still triangular.

The tree’s crown is covered in foliage and, despite the informal trunk, is almost always situated directly above the tree’s base, just like the formal upright design.

If there is no alignment between the apex and the truck, the tree will be classified as Shakan (slanting).

The Moyogi style lends itself to the inclusion of Jin, the remains of dead or undesired branches carved to resemble decaying and rotting tree limbs.

Slanting Style | Shakan

Shakan bonsai
Shakan bonsai

Due to strong winds or dense shade during early development, trees adjust and can naturally lean in the wind’s direction or towards the light.

The entire trunk has a fixed lean angle, whether curved or straight. The stronger roots develop on the opposite side of the tree’s lean direction to support the weight.

With this style, which mimics the casual upright but is slanted, almost any tree species will look good. The trunk can be either straight or curved, but it must be at an angle to the viewer’s right or left, and the apex must not be immediately over the bonsai’s base.

This style is quite a simple one that several methods can achieve. At an early age, the bonsai can be trained to an angle using wiring the trunk until it is in position.

Alternatively, the tree can be forced to grow in a slanted style by putting the actual pot on a slant, causing the tree to grow erect but at an artificial angle.

Full Cascade Style | Kengai

Kengai bonsai
Kengai bonsai

A cascade bonsai’s growing tip extends below the container’s base. The trunk has a natural taper, which provides the sense that natural forces are pulling against gravity. Branches seem to be reaching for the sun. The main trunk’s looping shape suggests a creek trickling down a mountainside.

A cascade bonsai can be created using a variety of trees. Here, it’s important to ensure the tree isn’t inherently straight and upright; you shouldn’t try to make a naturally straight-trunk tree into a bonsai with a cascading trunk.

This bonsai design can be very aesthetically beautiful if done correctly. The tapering trunk extends below the container and looks like the tree is being pulled downward by the forces of gravity.

Along with its gracefully alternating branches, the tree trunk twists to resemble a meandering stream.

A species of plant will gladly adopt this style if trained, and all that is needed to make it is a tall, narrow container that will emphasize the style and accommodate the cascade.

Wire the main trunk to pour over and down the edge of the pot, paying special attention to the big bend (forming an upside-down U shape).

It’s important to maintain the branches’ uniformity and horizontality to the trunk’s nearly vertical orientation.

Another crucial point to remember is that, contrary to how you would place any other design, cascade and semi-cascade should be placed directly in the center of the pot.

Semi-Cascade Style | Han-Kengai

Like the cascade, the semi-cascade’s tip extends over the container’s rim but does not touch the ground. In nature, the design can be seen in trees that cling to cliffs or dangle over the water.

Even though the plant grows far below the level of the pot rim, the bonsai’s trunk angle is not exact as long as the effect is firmly horizontal, and visible roots should offset the trunk.

Han-Kengai Bonsai
Han-Kengai Bonsai

Even though the plant grows far below the level of the pot rim, the bonsai’s trunk angle is not exact as long as the effect is firmly horizontal, and visible roots should offset the trunk.

This bonsai design makes cherry trees, cedars, and junipers look spectacular.

The Han-Kengai bonsai style is regarded by many as being the pinnacle of artistic beauty.

Growing bonsai is generally appreciated as a complex art form cultivated over millennia.

Multi-Trunk Cascade | Takan-Kengai

This style’s inclusion in the basic styles is debatable. Nevertheless, I am mentioning it because Japanese literature frequently refers to it.

The bonsai shapes Kengai and Takan, in which Kengai conveys nature’s harshness, and Takan expresses its grandeur, are exquisitely combined in the Takan-Kengai style.

Takan-Kengai bonsai
Takan-Kengai bonsai

Balance is a key component of both designs.

A two-trunk tree from the bottom or middle is called “Sokan.” If the trunk divides the tree into three is called “Sankan,” a trunk divided into five is called “Gokan.” Including “Sokan,” they are called “Takan (a tree having many trunks).”

There is the main trunk, and the others are the attached trunks. The balance of these trunks is very important for its beauty: the more trunks a tree has, the more difficult it is to depict a balance.

25 Variations to the 6 Basic Bonsai Styles

Trunk and Bark Surface Variance
DeadwoodSabamiki
DriftwoodSharimiki
Trunk and Root Placement
Root-over-rockSekijoju
Exposed-rootNeagari
Clinging-to-a-rockIshizuke, ishitsuki
Multiple trunks from a single root
Twin-trunk, two-trunkSokan
Three-trunkSankan
Five-trunkGokan
Seven-trunkNanakan
Nine-trunkKyukan
ClumpKabudachi, Kabubuki
Turtle, stumpKorabuki
Raft, straight-lineIkadabuki
Raft, sinuousNetsunagari, Netsuranari
Multiple trunks on own roots
Two-treeSoju
Three-treeSambon-yose
Five-treeGohon-yose
Seven-treeNanahon-yose
Nine-treeKyuhon-yose
ForestYose-ue
Other Styles
LiteratiBunjingi
BroomHokidachi
OctopusTakozukuri
Wind-sweptFukinagashi

Trunk and Bark Surface Variance

Deadwood | Sabamiki

The style depicts tree trauma and helps create an aging effect, replicating natural trees damaged by lightning or falling trees causing trunk damage. Sabamiki is effective on conifers, deciduous species, and broadleaf evergreens.

The hollowed trunk is typically chiseled, leaving a hollow that might be as small as a shallow scar or as deep as the trunk.

Trunk Taper
Trunk Taper

Driftwood | Sharimiki

The effect is a tree with an exposed, often sandblasted trunk free of bark. In nature, trees in the sharimiki style are the product of physical damage, disease, age, and weathering.

To ensure continued nutrient and water supply to the remainder of the tree, at least one strip of live bark must remain intact. Regardless of the tree’s conformation, the bared trunk sections offer a strong feeling of age and untold but imagined stories.

Trunk and Root Placement

Root-over-rock | Sekijoju

In nature, a seed may find sufficient soil in a rock crevice to germinate. This is often the case with xerophytes that require very little water to survive.

Like epiphytes that live on trees, these plants send their roots out until they find water and nutrient-containing soil.

This effect is achieved in bonsai by spreading roots over a rock and letting them grow. When the plant is potted, one method of accomplishing this is to bury the rock within the roots, allowing them to grow for a few years before gradually exposing them to harden off, as is done with the exposed root style.

Exposed-root | Neagari

In the natural world, rain and weather can erode soil away from a tree’s base, gradually exposing its roots over time. This effect is emphasized by bonsai artists, who display a lot of root structure.

This effect must be gradually built up by exposing only a small portion of the root each year and letting the exposed region harden.

Clinging-to-a-rock | Ishizuke, ishitsuki

Ishizuke bonsai
Ishizuke bonsai

Tree roots are tenacious and can grow in the soil contained within nooks and crannies of rocks. The rock may provide a simple initial container, with the roots moving from crevice to crevice, accessing limited nutrients.

The roots are so intertwined with the rock that it is inseparable, growing close to it and following its contours.

Multiple Trunks From a Single Root

Twin-trunk | Sokan

In this design, a tree with two trunks is shown. Typically, two trees with various diameters’ trunks have grown together at the base and are now fashioned as a single tree. Between the trunks, no branches may develop.

Three-trunk | Sankan

Three tree trunks emerge from various roots, and a dominant trunk is typically the thickest and tallest. Reduce symmetry and create the most natural effect possible by avoiding a linear arrangement.

Five-trunk | Gokan

The Gokan style modifies the Sankan style’s stylistic restrictions by allowing the placement of a second dominating tree.

This tree is inferior to the biggest but still bigger than the rest. Seven-trunk, nine-trunk, forest, and other bigger-numbered group types also permit a second or third tree to dominate other groups of trees within the broader design.

Seven-trunk | Nanakan

See Gokan above

Nine-trunk | Kyukan

See Gokan above

Clump | Kabudachi, Kabubuki

Kabudachi bonsai
Kabudachi bonsai

A tree with several trunks can emerge when a cone or fruit with numerous seeds falls on fertile ground, and several trees sprout simultaneously.

Each trunk contests for light, causing a slightly flared shape within the group. Bonsai artists can create the clump style by nestling several seedlings closely together and shaping them to develop outward-reaching trunks.

Turtle, stump | Korabuki

This style is similar to the clump style, but the trunks do not rise from a fairly flat surface root system. Instead, the ground-level roots form a domed or turtle-back shape, and the multiple trunks rise from it

Raft, straight-line | Ikadabuki

This style replicates a natural occurrence resulting from a fallen tree. The exposed branches transform into trunks, in line with the original bough.

Beneath the fallen tree trunk, roots start forming, resulting in one fallen tree giving life to several others – all seeming to be growing from a raft.

Raft, sinuous | Netsunagari, Netsuranari

A woodland tree is harmed by a storm and blown over, shattering the branches on the downhill side, in the realistic scenario that this style aims to imitate.

The remaining branches (growing vertically from the undamaged side of the trunk) eventually grow to seem like new trees joined by the old trunk as roots form from the trunk lying on the soil.

In bonsai, a one-sided tree is wired and placed branchless side down, horizontally on the soil. The growth of roots is aided by nicking the bark to reveal the cambium layer on the bottom of the trunk and then dusting it with rooting powder.

A curved trunk produces a fascinating pattern of trees resembling a little grove than a straight trunk, typically resulting in a straight line of trees.

Similar to the straight-line raft, but with many bends in the underlying trunk. It doesn’t seem like the trees are growing from it in a straight line.

Multiple trunks on own roots

Two-tree | Soju

Conventional bonsai specimens use trees of the same species for all multiple-trunk forms, with a dominating, larger tree and a smaller one, similar to the Sokan style.

The Soju form allows for the placement of the two trees quite close together. They can also be distinguished since they do not have a common root.

Three-tree | Sambon-yoseBecause there are fewer trees, certain artistic objectives, such as having no more than two trees in a straight line, can be applied to these bonsai.

Instead of being categorized as forests, the three-tree through nine-tree styles are called group settings.

Although the trunk width and height of trees in groups vary, they typically resemble one another in proportion, foliage density, and other aesthetic qualities.

A single tree will take center stage in the three-tree design, and the size of the other two will typically vary and be smaller.

Five-tree | Gohon-yose

Gohon-yose bonsai
Gohon-yose bonsai

Similar to the Sambon-yose; however, there may be two dominant trees. One will be larger than the other, and the remaining three will be noticeably smaller.

Seven-tree | Nanahon-yose

Similar rules to the Gohon-yose above

Nine-tree | Kyuhon-yose

Similar rules to the Gohon-yose above

Forest | Yose-ue

Artists can use five or more trees to make bonsai resembling little or big woods. The forest may occasionally be designed to appear to extend far into the distance.

A far-view perspective can be achieved by placing smaller trees in front and increasingly larger ones behind.

By positioning larger plants in the front, a different viewpoint is produced—that of a viewer in the middle of the trees, gazing out at the forest that stretches beyond.

Use trees of various heights and diameters in every situation, and arrange them so that no three trees can be seen from the front or the side in a straight line.

Each tree is positioned at a unique distance from the others. A canopy resembling a scalene triangle is the overall result.

Other Styles

Literati | Bunjingi

The literati bonsai style aims to capture a tree’s essence. A literati has a stunning, delicate, and distinctive trunk line, with hardly any branches.

This look is frequently regarded as the most challenging to pull off. Only a skilled bonsai artist who has perfected every rule and produced stunning designs can successfully defy convention and produce gorgeous literati.

Broom | Hokidachi

Old trees in orchards or along city streets are reminiscent of broom-style bonsai. An old tree is well reflected when deciduous species are trained to grow a crown of radial branches with a lot of ramification.

Certain broom styles have branches extending outward from a central point, while others have a primary trunk line that runs from the base of the trunk to the peak.

Octopus | Takozukuri

These unusual bonsai contain a small, thick trunk and several long branches bent into curving patterns to resemble octopus tentacles imaginatively.

Wind-swept | Fukinagashi

This design describes a tree that looks to be impacted by powerful winds that seem to be blowing consistently in one direction, as may shape a tree on an exposed shoreline or atop a mountain ridge.

The windswept feature can describe several basic styles, including semi-cascade, casual upright, and slanting. The windswept technique can also be used to create multi-tree bonsai.

The 6 Basic Styles and the Trees Used

PLantUSDA Hardiness ZonesLight RequirementSoil RequirementBasic Style
Chinese Hackberry (Celtis sinensis)7a – 9bFull sun to partial shadeGood drainage, moist, occasionally dry, occasionally wetChokkan Formal Upright
Sargent’s Chinese Juniper (Juniperus chinensis var. sargentii)4a – 9bFull sunGood drainage, moist, occasionally dryMoyogi Informal Upright
Korean Lilac (Syringa oblata)4a – 7bFull sun or partial shadeGood drainage, moistShakan Slanting
Blue Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’)6b – 8aFull sunGood drainage, moistKengai Full Cascade
Robust Green Juniper (Juniperus chinensis ‘Robusta Green’)4a – 9bFull sunGood drainageHan-Kengai Semi-Cascade
Black Pine (Pinus rigida)4a – 7bFull sun or partial shadeGood drainage, moist, occasionally drySokan Double Trunk

Bonsai Basic Fundamentals

Bonsai is an art; to become good at bonsai, you must master the fundamentals. These include the following but are not limited to. Click the links in the table to learn more about each subject.

PlacementPruningStyle / Form
WateringWiringBuying Bonsai
FertilizerDefoliationNursery Stock
RepottingDeadwoodGrowing from Cuttings
SoilSurface RootsGrowing from Seed
Pot SelectionTrunk
The fundamentals of Growing Bonsai

Conclusion on Bonsai Styling

It is helpful to pay attention to the tree’s natural inclination and to cooperate. Together you’ll produce a stunning design. Preconceived notions need to be set aside, working with what you have.

Every tree is different and uniquely beautiful, and it’s up to you to emphasize its natural traits and unique character. I wish you every success in exploring your hand at creating an amazing bonsai.

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