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  Styles of Bonsai

Basic Styles

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 final form.

Formal Upright


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.

Informal 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 well.



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.

Recommended Species:



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 soil surface.

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 for years.

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