What are the Six Types of Bonsai?

Klon Burgera Bonsai Tree

Growing a bonsai tree is very much different than say growing a maple tree in your backyard. With the maple tree, you plant, feed and water the tree. And other than an occasional pruning to remove dead or damaged branches, you simply sit back and let nature take over. However with a bonsai, from day one you are growing a specimen with a defined “look” in mind. You will prune and train the tree to eventually achieve this look. Nature may grow the tree, but you determine its final appearance.

While the final appearance of the tree is part of the growers interpretation, there are five or six defined styles that your bonsai will fall into. Within the first five classifications you will find the “Formal Upright” bonsai, the “Informal Upright, the ” Slanting” bonsai, the “Cascade” and the “Semi Cascade” bonsai. As the names of the first two classifications elude to, trees grown in this style are trained to grow in a straight up right direction. The “Slanting” bonsai is one in which the tree angles either right or left. In the cascade style(s), the tree is pruned and trained to resemble a cascading waterfall.

Klon Burgera Bonsai Tree

Klon Burgera Bonsai Tree

The sixth style of the bonsai is known as “Windswept”. With this style the bonsai is trained to appear as it is being constantly blown by the wind. The inclusion of the windswept style into the classifications is a cause of some controversy amongst growers and traditionalist. Because of the visual interest that this style can generate, we felt it was important to include it in a discussion of the styles of bonsai trees.

Your choice of style will be made early in the life of the bonsai. The actual specimen chosen by you can be governed by the style choice. Also your choice of design and color of the pot will also be influenced by the style of bonsai you choose to grow.

To help you decide which style of bonsai best suits your intended design, let’s take a closer look at each of the styles. Each of these styles has some specific guidelines for that particular style. But remember these are guidelines only. One of the more enjoyable parts of the bonsai experience is to create that one of a kind specimen.

Formal Upright Bonsai Tree

The formal upright is the basis of other bonsai styles. It is a single trunk specimen tree that is conical in shape. With this style of bonsai the length of the branches diminish the closer to the apex of the tree they are.

Formal Upright Bonsai Tree

Formal Upright Bonsai Tree

One of the hallmarks of the Formal Upright is the position of the first branch. This first branch should appear at 1/3rd of the height of the trunk, it should also be pointed toward the front of the tree. The second branch should also be trained to angle toward the front of the tree. A third branch should extend out of the back of the trunk. This third branch should occur at an angle that is half way between the first and second branches. Subsequent branches should follow this pattern to the apex of the tree. The final appearance of the tree should approximate a triangle.

When planting a Formal Upright Bonsai, do not center the plant in pot. This placement is for visual reasons only. Formal Upright bonsai appear best when potted in an oval or rectangular pot. Avoid square pots as this affects the appearance of the tree.

The Formal Upright is one of the easiest forms to create. recommended plants that are well suited for the Formal Upright Bonsai are pines, Maples, junipers and larches. It is recommended that you avoid fruit bearing trees for the formal upright style. The formal upright bonsai is total symmetry.

The Informal Upright Bonsai is a single trunk specimen planted in a pot, just as the Formal Upright Bonsai is. The placement or location of the branches as they emanate from the trunk follow the same procedural logic as in the Formal Upright. Beyond these two stipulations, the Informal upright Bonsai and the Formal Upright are two very different plants. With the Informal Upright Bonsai the trunk of the tree is not necessarily straight, in fact it may bend or twist several times before it reaches its apex. A properly trained Informal Upright Bonsai will bend toward the front or display side of the tree as it reaches its apex.

The branches in an informal Upright Bonsai appear to be fuller than with the Formal style, as seen in a Fukien Tea Upright Bonsai. There is less symmetry with the informal Upright than one would find with the Formal Upright. Making the informal Upright style a better choice for a specimen selected to depict a more desolate setting.

As with the Formal Upright, good choices for the Informal Upright Bonsai would include pine, maples and Junipers. Avoid fruit bearing trees for this design. Informal Upright Bonsai will appear best when planted in either an oval or rectangular pot.

When potting an Informal Upright Bonsai, plant it off center in your pot. If your selected plant does not have an significant bent or slant, simply adjust the angle of the root ball when you plant the specimen. In a visit to your local nursery you should be able to fins several trees that already have a natural bend or twist to the trucks, making them ideal selections for this style of bonsai.

The slanting Bonsai tree has a very steep or acute angle compared to the previous two styles discussed. Whereas in the upright styles the trunk of the tree grows vertically, the trunk of the slanted tree leans drastically in one direction. The angle that the tree grows in ranges from 60 -80 degrees.

Slanted bonsai trees are often found in nature where the tree had to bend in one direction to locate the sun, or where prevailing winds constantly forced the tree into one direction. The slanted Bonsai is a miniature version of this same tree.

There are very few rules or guidelines regarding the slanted Bonsai. Primarily the first branch must spread in the opposite direction of the slant. The other guideline is that the top of the tree should point toward the front or face of the tree.

This style of bonsai is compromise between the Upright style and the cascade style. One important differentiations between the slanting Bonsai and the Cascading Bonsai is that the growth of the tree occurs above the root line in the slanted, whereas the grow occurs below the root line in the cascade styles.

With the exception of the fruit bearing trees, almost any other tree could be trained in this style.

Within the cascade style of bonsai plants there are two classifications, the “Cascade Bonsai” and the “Semi Cascade Bonsai”. These trees are trained so that the trunk of the tree will begin to grow straight up, and then turn drastically down toward the soil of the tree. The distinction between the Cascade and the Semi Cascade is the direction that the growth occurs in. With the Cascade style the tree will continue to grow vertically toward earth, whereas the semi cascade will eventually begin to grow horizontally. This horizontal growth will always happen below the base of the tree.

In both styles the main portion of the trees growth will occur below the base of the tree. This growth will extend down beyond the bottom of the pot that contains the Cascade bonsai. For this reason, Cascade Bonsai are normally placed upon either a high table or a pedestal.

A good selection for either of these styles would be the prostrate junipers, chrysanthemums, wisteria, willows and star jasmine. One would not select a tree that naturally is a tall growth specimen for styling as a cascade bonsai. These trees display best when planted in either in a round or hexagonal pot. The pot for the cascading Bonsai should always be much taller then they are wide. As with most other bonsai trees, this style displays best when planted off center.

Creating a cascade or a semi cascade bonsai is a very time consuming endeavor.

Windswept Bonsai Tree

The final classification of styles for the bonsai tree is known as the “Windswept Bonsai”. What differentiates this style from the others is the visual harshness of the presentation. As the name implies, the “Windswept Bonsai” has the appearance of a tree grown in extremely harsh conditions, where winds or other environmental conditions have forced growth on just one side of the tree, typically away from the wind. With this style of bonsai, everything, trunk, branches and leaves all will face in only one direction.

The windswept bonsai is not to be confused with the slanted bonsai. Both styles will have a bent or angled trunk, however with the slanted, the branches and foliage can return back toward the trunk. On a windswept bonsai, there is no reversal of direction.

A windswept Bonsai normally will have a stunted or weathered appearance. There will be little if any adornment in the pot. Remember that the goal is to create a presentation that reflects the harshest of conditions. This tree is normally planted in an oval pot, with the tree itself planted toward one edge of the pot. The growth will occur back toward the center of the pot. To help define the rugged conditions, you may elect to add rocks to the presentation. Remember to keep the rocks within the proper scale of the tree. When found in nature these trees are very matured large trees, so don’t diminish their size with too large of rocks.

Windswept bonsai are normally cultivated from evergreens. The use of deciduous trees is not recommended for this style of bonsai. While the deciduous could be trained in the windswept style, the fact that their leaves grow in all directions would make the visual affect less convincing.

Windswept Bonsai Tree

Windswept Bonsai Tree

Windswept Bonsai are normally potted in simple, unadorned pots. Use of glazed or brightly colored pots would detract from the overall presentation.

If one were to search for a single word to describe the appearance that the “Windswept Bonsai” creates, that single word would be “Survivor”. While this style may not be as visually fulfilling, it is definitely one of the most dramatic styles.

Windswept Bonsai Tree at the goal is to create a presentation that reflects the harshest of conditions. This tree is normally planted in an oval pot, with the tree itself planted toward one edge of the pot. The growth will occur back toward the center of the pot. To help define the rugged conditions, you may elect to add rocks to the presentation. Remember to keep the rocks within the proper scale of the tree. When found in nature these trees are very matured large trees, so don’t diminish their size with too large of rocks.