An Overview of the Art of Bonsai

Bonsai, the artistic representation of a natural tree, first appeared in China over a thousand years ago on a very basic scale known as “pun-sai”. The Japanese have been recorded to adopt and refine the art to an extent not yet approached in China. The Japanese today regard bonsai as a symbol of their culture and ideals.

On its arrival in the western world, the art of bonsai has been warmly welcomed and embraced as a rewarding past time or hobby. It is said to allow a greater understanding and being with nature in addition to enhancing our gardens.

The five basic bonsai styles are formal upright, informal upright, slanting (or windswept), semi-cascade and cascade. All have their own individual beauty and serenity.

A tree with a style such as formal upright occurs when it has grown in the open under perfect conditions. The most important requirement for this style is that the trunk should be perfectly straight, tapering naturally and evenly from base to apex. The branches should be symmetrically spaced so that they are balanced when viewed from any direction. It is quite a demanding style to achieve. Junipers, pines, and spruces are great to try and grow in the formal upright style.

In an informal upright bonsai the trunk should slightly bend to the right or left – but never towards the viewer. This applies to all types of bonsai. Neither the trunk nor branches should be pointing towards the viewer when the bonsai is viewed from the front. For this style, try a Japanese maple, Trident maple, or almost any conifer and ornamental tree.

Trees that slant naturally occur as a result of buff setting winds or deep shade during early development. Whether curved or straight, the whole trunk leans at a definite angle. The stronger roots grow out on the side, away from the angle of the trunk lean, to support the weight. Almost any type of tree will work well with this style.

The growing tip of a cascade bonsai reaches below the base of a container. The trunk has a natural taper and gives the impression of the forces of nature pulling against the forces of gravity. Branches appear to be seeking the light. The winding main trunk is reminiscent of a stream meandering down the side of a mountain. There are many types of trees that can be used to achieve a cascading bonsai. The key here is to make sure the tree isn’t naturally straight and upright.

The tip of a semi-cascade, like the cascade, projects over the rim of the container, but does not drop below its base. The style occurs in nature when trees grow on cliffs or overhang water. The angle of the trunk in this bonsai is not precise, as long as the effect is strongly horizontal, even if the plant grows well below the level of the pot rim. Any exposed roots should balance the trunk. Flowering cherry trees, cedars, and junipers work very well in this style of bonsai. Many people feel this style of bonsai is the epitome of beauty in the art.

It is important for you to remember, as a beginner, that no single bonsai style is the “right” style. More than anything else you should not try to train a bonsai to grow in a style it is not accustomed to. Study the natural growth patterns of the tree you are going to grow and enhance on the pattern nature gave it.