When shaping a tree, you must first decide which style is best suited to the
tree’s natural design. There are complex array of different shapes and styles to
choose from. Bonsai can, however, be classified into five basic styles: formal
upright, informal upright, slanting, cascade, and semicascade. These
classifications are based on the overall shape of the tree and how much the
trunk slants away from an imaginary vertical axis. There are two other possible
styles (Windswept and Literati) that many people consider as basic styles.
How Bonsai Styles Effect Potting
Before potting a tree for bonsai in any of the styles, keep in mind the image
of how the tree will stand in the container. Don’t plant a tree one way, and
then uproot it to make a change. Keep your overall theme in mind when planting
bonsai. Upright trees should have a stabilized look in the container; slanted
and cascaded styles often have their upper root surfaces exposed to imitate
plants that grow this way in nature. No matter what style you choose – whether
single trunk specimens or groups of trees from single roots – everything depends
on your selection of plant material, and your ability to visualize the bonsai’s
The formal upright style has classic proportions and is the basis of all
bonsai. It is the easiest for a beginner to develop because it requires the
least experimentation, avoids the problem of selective pruning, and should
almost immediately become a displayable bonsai. In this style, the form is
conical or sometimes rounded and the tree has an erect leader and horizontal
branches. One of the branches is lower and extends a little farther from the
trunk than the others. Also, the lowest two branches are trained to come forward
on the front side of the tree, one slightly higher than the other. The third
branch of this style extends out in the back of the tree at a level between the
two side branches to give the plant depth. The formal upright style is
considered the easiest for the novice bonsai grower. This style features a
straight trunk, and a bottom branch that is lower and extends further from the
trunk than its opposite. Plants in the formal upright style look best in oval or
rectangular containers. Do not center the plant when placing it in the
container. Plant it about a third of the distance from one end. In choosing a
nursery plant for this style, make sure the trunk rises from the ground in a
fairly straight line. The trunk should be straight and not fork or branch out
for the total height of the tree. Trim off the small branches or twigs that are
too close to the base and near the main stem. These branches detract from the
overall composition. For a tree to be a formal upright, it must have a very
straight trunk and a very balanced distribution of branches. The goal is to
develop a sense of balance, but not strict symmetry. The first branch should be
the most developed and should be positioned roughly a third the height of the
tree. This style is best suited to conifers.
Recommended Species: Larches, Junipers, Pines and Spruces are all
suitable species. Maples can also be used, but are not as easy to train into
such a conformist style. Above all, fruiting or naturally informal trees are not
suitable for formal upright.
The informal upright style has much the same branch arrangement as the formal
upright style, but the top -- instead of being erect as in the formal upright
style -- bends slightly to the front. This bend makes the tree's branches appear
to be in motion and enhances the look of informality. The trunk in the informal
upright style bends slightly to the front. This bend helps to give the style of
informality. Many nursery trees are naturally slanted. This makes them well
suited to the informal upright style. Check the tree's slant by looking down at
the trunk from above -- from this angle the top should slant to the front. If
this view is not attractive, you may move the rootball to slant the tree in
another direction. If you choose a vertical tree at the nursery, and want to
train it in the informal upright style, simply tilt the plant when potting it.
When you do this, trim the branches and foliage so they are scaled to the size
of the tree. The informal upright style looks best in an oval or rectangular
container. It should be planted, not in the center of the container, but a third
of the distance form one end. Informal uprights are one of the most common
styles. This is the most basic design in that it follows the natural structure
of the tree's trunk. The goal is to develop a single line of the trunk, reaching
from the roots to the apex while producing a natural structure of branches and
foliage. Again, the branching starts about a third of the way up, and there
should be little or no empty spaces. Most deciduous trees will be best suited to
informal upright styles.
Recommended Species: Most species of plants are suitable for this
style, mainly the Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum), Trident Maple (Acer
buergerianum), Beech, practically all Conifers and other ornamental trees such
as the Crab Apple, Cotoneaster and Pomegranate.
In the slanting style, the trunk has a more acute angle than in the previous
styles. The lowest branch should spread in the direction opposite to that in
which the tree slants. The top of the tree is bent slightly toward the front.
The lower branches are arranged in groups of three, starting about one-third the
way up the trunk. In the slanting style the trunk has a more acute angle than in
the informal upright style. The lowest branch spreads in the opposite direction
to that in which the tree slants. Slanting trees in nature are called "leaners"
-- trees that have been forced by the wind and gravity into non-vertical growth.
The attitude of the slanting style falls between the upright and cascade styles.
This style looks best planted in the center of a round or square container. The
goal of shakan is to balance the movement of the trunk with the placement of the
branches so that the tree does not appear to be lopsided. A slanted style tree
can often give a very powerful impression of strength and age.
Recommended Species: Most species are suitable for this style, as
the style does bear similarity to informal upright. Conifers work particularly
In the cascade style the trunk starts by growing upward from the soil, then
turns downward abruptly, and reaches a point below the bottom edge of the
container. For this reason, the container should be placed on the edge of the
table, or on a small stand. The cascade style of bonsai represents a natural
tree growing down the face of an embankment. A cascaded planting usually looks
best in a round or hexagonal container. The cascade style has most of its
foliage below the soil surface. This style is representative of a natural tree
that is growing down the face of an embankment. Training a tree in the cascade
style takes longer than in the slanting style. Choose a low-growing species
instead of forcing a tree that normally grows upright into an unnatural form.
Bend the whole tree forward so one back branch is vertical and the side branches
fall naturally. A cascaded planting usually looks best in a round or hexagonal
container that is higher than it is wide. The tree should be planted off-center
from the cascading side.
The semicascade style has a trunk that is allowed to grow straight for a
certain distance, and then is cascaded down at a less abrupt angle than in the
cascade style. The semicascade style has a curving trunk that does not reach the
bottom of the container as in the cascade style. Prostrate junipers and
flowering plants are well adapted to both of these styles. The cascading
branches are thought of as the front of the tree, and the back branches are
trained closer to the trunk than in the other styles. The semicascade should not
reach below the bottom of the container, but should go below the level of the
Recommended Species: Plants that are well adapted to the cascade and
semicascade styles are prostrate junipers, and flowering plants such as
chrysanthemums, wisteria, willows, and star jasmine.
This style simulates the effect of sustained exposure to strong winds. In
this design, each of the branches appears to be "swept" to one side, as if being
blown by a strong wind or having large portions of foliage and branches stripped
by environmental conditions. These trees are modelled on trees usually found in
coastal areas, where strong environmental forces have shaped and sculpted them