This article presents comprehensive information about the many bonsai styles. If you are new to bonsai you will be in for a treat. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of bonsai and have be able to make better decisions about how you choose and care for a bonsai. The first step is to understand bonsai styles.
The history of bonsai goes back countless ages, with the first evidence of small potted trees showing up in Egyptian tombs over 2000 years ago. Records show Indian herbalists keeping prized plants dwarfed in containers to increase their mobility 1500 years back. But bonsai as we know it shows up in Chinese history around 700AD in the Tang dynasty (again in tomb paintings). This was also a period of great cultural learning for the Japanese, who sent emissaries to China and were borrowing much of its culture, especially the arts.
The Chinese pen tsai (pot tree) became the Japanese bon sai (same translation). During the 14th century, as east-west trade became established there was a brief interest in miniature trees, which rekindled again in the 17th century when Japan again opened to trade. But the reports of the time refer to “oriental magics” that western collectors were blaming for the demise of their trees, and the thread broke off again.
It wasn’t until Japan exhibited at the 1878 World Exhibition in Paris that bonsai resurfaced on the international stage, along with a clearer knowledge of the process. Today bonsai is a world wide art form with clubs in nearly every country on the globe.
Two Kinds of Bonsai
Generally speaking, bonsai are one of two types, tropical or temperate.
Generally speaking, bonsai are one of two types, tropical or temperate. Tropical bonsai, such as serissa, ficus, or bougainvillea can not adapt to freezing temperature and must be protected against frost. I leave my tropicals out for the first frost or two if they’re not too severe; the plants appreciate the brief “dormancy.”
Temperate bonsai (junipers, maples, etc.) can survive lower temperatures, but because of the shallow root system, generally need some protection from the cold (I dig a 2′ deep pit and cover it with a PVC frame and white plastic; not pretty, but functional). Temperate bonsai need a dormancy period and will just peter out if you try to keep them like tropicals.
The Truth about Indoor Bonsai
People often refer to tropicals as “indoor” bonsai and temperates as “outdoor” bonsai, but I dislike this terminology as it gives the impression that it is o.k. to keep bonsai indoors year round if it is a tropical. Bonsai are trees. Mother nature created them to live and thrive outdoors. Some retailers would like for you to believe their bonsai is an indoor bonsai but the truth and the fact of the matter is that trees do not thrive when kept indoors year round.
Keep Your Indoor Bonsai Outdoors
Bonsai should be outdoors at all times they are able to handle it. It is all right to bring them in for a day or two to show, providing they get decent light and more water than usual, but in good weather ALL your trees should be outside.
How to Care for Tropical Bonsai in Winter
In the cold months the tropicals need to come indoors to that bright window and religious watering, the temperates can go in your frame (or similar set-up; a friend in New Jersey keeps his under his deck and I have seen them over-wintered in a open cardboard box with a layer of leaves over the pot in milder areas) and the watering requirements drop to once a week or so (if it warms up even temporarily, you should check more often.
Acquiring a bonsai should be thought of as getting a pet plant. It needs the same continual feeding, watering, and grooming that a puppy would need, but the tree can’t whine at you when it’s thirsty or hungry, so it requires a strict schedule to maintain optimal health. Much like a good pet, bonsai can be a good companion for decades and if well kept should outlive you! (and they don’t go on the carpet…
Let’s determine what kind of bonsai you want. Styling breaks into two groups, single trunk and multi-trunked. Let’s look at the single trunk styles first. There are four main groups…
Chokkan Style – Formal Upright
This is a most complex style with very specific rules for branch placement, pot selection and such. It is NOT a style for beginners, and even experienced artists approach this one with caution. Some of the sub-categories of uprights include:
- Tachiki – Informal upright, the style I feel suits most beginners
- Hokidachi – Broom Style
- Sabamiki – Split Trunk
- Saramiki – Eexposed trunk, the bark is MOSTLY stripped off
- Sekijôju – Root over Rock; the plant is grown over a rock and into the soil of a pot
- Ishitsuki – Planted in crevices in a rock
- Neagari – Exposed root, like a mangrove
Shakan Style – Slanting Style
The Shakan style is fairly common and not too esoteric for the budding enthusiast. Some other similar styles include Bunjingi or Literati Style (a few branches at the top of a long slanted trunk, usually in a small, shallow pot), and Fukinagashi Style (Windswept Style, with all the branches coming off one side of the trunk).
Kengai Style – Cascade Style Bonsai
The Cascade Style is easily recognized as the trunk dips below the bottom of the pot. Two other styles that are offshoots are Dai Kengai, the formal cascade, where the first branch plunges down below the bottom of the pot, but the rest of the branching proceeds as a Formal upright, and Han Kengai, or Semi-cascade, where the trunk descends below the rim of the pot, often in a windswept style.
Bankan Style – Twisted Style Bonsai
The Twisted Style is probably closest to what came over from China; the Chinese are very fond of this style and often refer to them as “dragon” trees (In Feng Shui, the Green Dragon is an auspicious presence in the garden) especially in the East). The tree coils around itself like a Chinese dragon The secondary styles for this one include Nejikan, or partially twisted style where the trunk does not make a complete turn on itself, and the little seen Takzukuri Style, or Octopus, where even the branching is twisted on itself from a very distorted trunk
There are styles that incorporate two or more plants in one pot; these include…
Soju Style – Two Trunks Style Bonsai
Two Trunks Style is usually used in the Wedded configuration with one trunk subservient to the other. An adjunct of Two Trunks is Sôkan Style, or double trunk, where one trunk splits just above the soil line and the two branches are treated as separate trees.
Yôse Style – Group Style Bonsai
Group plantings are denoted by how many trunks are in the planting. Sambon-Yôse (3 trunks), Gohon-Yôse (5), Nanahon-Yôse (7) and Kyuhon-Yôse (9) are the usual groupings. These groups are all done with roughly the same caliper plants Yôse-Ue Style is any group with more than nine trunks; Yomayose Style is a naturalistic grouping with different calipers and heights of trees. All these different styles have a corresponding Kabudachi style, where the different trunks all spring from a single root, and a Tsukami-Yôse style, where the different trunks all spring from the middle of the pot.
Kôrabuki Style – Raft Style Bonsai
Raft Style copies that tree we’ve all seen that has fallen over and the branches on one side have all grown as individual trees. In this first style the trunk rest partially below the soil level. The Ikadabuki, or Straight Line Style keeps the trunk (at least the middle) wholly out of the soil and straight, as the name suggests. Netsunagari Style is the Sinuous Style where the root twists and winds through the pot and the trunks are more twisted.
Other Bonsai Groups
There are some other groups we should touch on as they are often seen in conjunction with displayed bonsai.
Bonkei – Landscape Trays
Bonkei, or landscape trays, often include a small pruned tree, along with rock, mosses, grass and other perennials, water and little figurines. The Chinese still like the occasional figure or under-planting with their pen tsai, but the Japanese frown on it and relegate it to it’s own slot, a decidedly lower slot than bonsai (If you brought a tree to a judged show with a figure in it, they won’t throw you out, but you lose BIG points. And that’s internationally in the bonsai world…)
Kusamomo plantings are small tray plantings of grass or bulbs used as a compliment to bonsai displays.
Suiseki Bonsai Style
Suiseki are miniature mountains, displayed on beautifully carved wooden stands called daiza. Rocks are selected for their appearance as a mountain, hill, a hut, island or even an animal. One cut is allowed to give a flat side to rest upon, and the daiza is custom fit to the stone. More cuts or polishing the stone demotes it to biseki, or pretty stones, with the same loss of prestige that bonkei suffer. These are not bonsai, but can definitely add to your enjoyment of the real thing. And that’s the key to Bonsai, to enjoy.