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Creative Bonsai Styles: Five “Beyond the Basics” Techniques

July 28, 2023General, Styling

A root-over-rock style bonsai

How many different ways can we style bonsai? As it turns out, quite a few! In this article, we’ll explore five styles or style classes that go beyond the basics.

When it comes to styling bonsai, we have a multitude of choices. Surprisingly, there are more than 30 recognized tree styles within the art. For those just starting out in the hobby, our article about the five basic styles explores several of the common, iconic and easier bonsai styles.

However, for those yearning to try something a bit different or more challenging, there are plenty of additional options. In this article, we’ll explore five styles or classes of styles that represent a natural progression from the basics. While most of these styles require additional time and effort, they add depth, variety and beauty to any bonsai collection. They also help build hobbyists’ skills and knowledge of the practice.

Broom Style

The natural growth habit of some tree species, such as elms and zelkovas, tends toward the development of a multitude of fine branches. This contrasts with other species that have a tiered branch system with larger branches at the bottom of the tree and finer branches near the top.

A broom-style zelkova bonsai
A broom-style zelkova bonsai

In bonsai, these fine-branched trees often appear in the broom, or Hokidachi, style. As the name suggests, this style features a vertical trunk from which the fine branches reach out in all directions. The branching usually starts at about one-third of the height of the tree and forms a rounded crown of foliage. Broom-styled trees are uniquely attractive during the winter months, when the lack of foliage showcases their intricate branching structure. 

This is one of the more challenging styles to develop because it requires frequent and detailed pruning to achieve the characteristic fine branching structure. 

Root-Over-Rock Style

The interesting root-over-rock, or Sekijoju, bonsai style involves positioning a tree to grow on a rock. The tree’s exposed roots grow over and around the rock, reaching into the soil below. 

A root-over-rock style bonsai
A root-over-rock style bonsai

To style a root-over-rock bonsai, marry an interesting rock and a young tree with pliable roots. The rock should have natural crevices big enough to direct or contain the main roots and give them a surface to grip. Wire the tree in place so that it grows from the top or clings to the side of the rock, then work the main roots into the rock’s crevices. Place the tree and rock in a deep training pot and add bonsai soil up to the base of the tree.

It takes time to develop a bonsai in this style. The tree will need several years of growth to conform to the rock. As the tree and rock start to fuse, begin to expose the roots by gradually lowering the soil line.

Similar bonsai styles include the exposed root style, or Neagari, and the clinging-to-rock style, or Ishitsuki.

Windswept Style

The dramatic windswept, or Fukinagashi, style is reminiscent of a tree growing on a wind-battered sea coast or exposed mountain crag. 

Trees living under these conditions in nature endure winds blowing constantly and in one direction. The action of the wind over time sculpts the tree so that all branches flow in the same direction. In many cases, the tree itself grows in a slanting posture in response to constant pressure from the wind.

This windswept-style bonsai has all branches pointing in one direction.
The branches of this windswept-style bonsai all point in the same direction.

To train a tree in the windswept style, decide on the front of the tree and which direction you want the branches to point. Remove all the branches on the opposite side of the tree with the exception of any you plan to convert to deadwood. Wire the remaining branches and position them all to point in the same direction.

Literati Style

Also known as Bunjingi, literati is a unique approach to bonsai design that encompasses a greater range of creativity and artistic expression than other styles. The name “literati” comes from an elite class of Chinese scholarly artists. This group developed a calligraphic style of ink wash painting that conveyed the simplified essence of their subjects as opposed to portraying exact depictions. 

Literati bonsai have an elegant, airy, delicate look. They call to mind the struggle of a tree in a dense forest that survives only by growing taller than competing trees. The literati style’s characteristic tall, thin trunks often twist and contort in interesting ways. They have minimal foliage, which is generally located only in the crown or apex of the tree. Often, literati bonsai do not display surface roots. In addition, they frequently reside in unusually small pots.

A graceful, literati-style pine bonsai
A graceful, literati-style pine bonsai

To fashion a literati bonsai, choose a specimen with a thin, pliable trunk and sparse foliage. Pines and junipers are good subjects for this style. While most deciduous trees tend not to be the best literati subjects, elms can work, and anything tall and gangly might be worth a try. 

Determine your vision for how the bonsai should look. Literati can look like an artistic interpretation of any of the other bonsai styles. Wire and shape the tree’s trunk, and trim and shape a minimal crown of foliage to create your literati bonsai.

Forest Style

The forest style of bonsai features multiple trees planted as a group. “Forest”in bonsai is a general term, and it encompasses a number of formally recognized bonsai styles. For example, the Sambon-Yose style is a three-trunk forest grouping, while the Kyuhon-Yose style consists of nine trunks.

A bonsai conifer forest planted on a slab.
A bonsai conifer forest planted on a slab

In most cases, forest plantings consist of an odd number of trees, all of the same species. The trees usually vary in size and height, adding visual interest to the overall composition. Bonsai forests are planted in a large shallow tray or in mounds of soil atop a flat rock slab.

In a similar style, known as the raft, or Ikadabuki style, a single tree forms the basis for a forest scene. Several branches located on the same side of the tree are selected to develop as individual trees. After stripping off all other branches, the tree goes into the pot horizontally with the bare side down. The now-vertical branches become the forest.

Success with the styles covered in this article require more time and skill than the basic, foundational styles. However, with attention, care and patience, hobbyists – including those relatively new to bonsai – can use them as inspiration to create impressive bonsai.

In this article, we explored five “beyond the basics” bonsai styles and provided overviews of the techniques used to achieve them. Hobbyists can experiment with these styles to enhance both their skills and their bonsai collections.

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