Choosing A Style
Bonsai can be classified into five basic styles: formal
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. (See figs. 4 and 6.)
The numerous Japanese bonsai styles are principally variations of these
five basic styles. The styles given in this bulletin apply to trees with
single trunks. The single trunk style is the basic design that is simplest
to shape because the one trunk determines the overall composition.
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. (See fig. 1.)
Fig.1 -- Note the off-center placement
of this mugho pine in its rectangular
container. This tree is trained in the
formal upright style.
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. (See fig. 2.)
Fig. 2 -- 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.
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. (See figs.
3 and 4.)
Fig. 3 -- Flowering plum bonsai, trained in the
informal upright style, is set on a rock; this
setting enhances the illusion of a tree growing
in the wild.
Fig. 4 -- 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 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.
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. (See figs. 5 and 6.)
Fig. 5 -- This Lodgepole pine was 67 years old when
it was collected from the Sierra Nevada mountains
of California; it was trained in the slanting style
The lower branches are arranged in groups of three, starting about one-third
the way up the trunk.
Fig. 6 -- 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 nonvertical 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.
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. (See figs. 7 and 8.)
Fig. 7 -- Firethorn bonsai, trained in the
cascade style, has a characteristic leader
which descends below the bottom edge of
Fig. 8 -- 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
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. (See figs. 9 and 10.)
Fig. 9 -- Cotoneaster in round container was
trained in the semicascade style.
Fig. 10 -- 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.
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.
Before potting a tree for bonsai in any of the five 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.
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